NEW YORK — In a move that could ease the passage of bodies from refrigerated morgues to cemeteries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering allowing out-of-state funeral directors to work in New York under the license of an existing practitioner, a state official told POLITICO.
The potential executive order would dovetail with an existing effort by the state’s Funeral Directors Association to recruit upstate funeral directors to New York City to help their overwhelmed colleagues. Overburdened funeral homes are running out of space to process bodies, with the lockdown forcing them to abbreviate mourning rituals — an idea no one seems to relish.
“All of these families want to have a funeral. And they can’t,” said Anthony Cassieri, who runs Brooklyn Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Brownsville. “You can’t celebrate somebody’s life. It’s a sin. It really is a sin.”
On Wednesday night, the state association issued a “call of action” to funeral directors from around the state asking them to come to New York City to help process the dead, said Mike Lanotte, the executive director and CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.
Lanotte’s action is both a call to call to arms and a death knell, as New York’s coronavirus fatality toll on Friday leapt past the death toll the state sustained on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’ve talked to funeral directors who’ve been practicing for 30 or 40 years who said they’ve never seen anything like this in their life,” Lanotte said.
As of Thursday night, Covid-19 had taken 1,562 lives in New York City. The city’s four crematories can now work 24 hours a day. The city has established at least 45 mobile morgues to supplement the existing body storage capacity. The U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly sending dozens of mortuary affairs officers to help run the new morgues.
At Hart Island, the city potter’s field administered by the Department of Correction, the number of burials has increased from 30 or fewer a week to 100 a week, the department confirmed.
“If everybody stops dying for two months, we’ll still be working like this for six to eight months,” Cassieri said.
Funeral directors are a key link in the chain that connects coronavirus victims to their final resting places. When a patient dies, the funeral directors speak with the family, provide caskets, stage whatever wakes or funerals they can and then transport the deceased to the cemetery or crematorium.
They number of deceased is overwhelming their systems — so, too, is a shortage of workers at both crematories and cemeteries, where workers are getting sick, and where operators, in an effort to protect their workers, have moved people into shifts.
In pre-Covid-19 times, when Cassieri needed to cremate a body, he’d call up the crematory and take the body there at his leisure. Now, crematories are requiring appointments, sometimes more than a week in advance.
Cassieri thinks the state should grant funeral directors access to mobile crematories, so “we could start cremating our own work,” he said. He imagines setting one up in a parking lot or a garage.
To that end, he sought help from Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge and passed on his request to the authorities.
“The grim reality is they have 40 or 50 people that need to be waked at their funeral homes and they have nowhere to store the bodies,” Brannan said.
At the moment, state law restricts crematory operations to cemeteries, according to David Fleming, the director of legislative affairs at the New York State Association of Cemeteries.
But mobile crematories — or “retorts,” as they are known — have been “part of the mass casualty planning that’s around for a while,” Fleming said. “These retorts are available and they would most likely be run by cemeteries and Department of Defense employees.”
Fleming said that the city’s four crematories are now “hovering around capacity,” and have had to dispatch some bodies outside of the city.
He suggested funeral directors could help increase that capacity by encasing bodies in cardboard “cremation containers,” rather than heavy wooden caskets.
“Obviously the flame has to consume the casket, as well as the body,” Fleming said. “It slows us down significantly when funeral directors are selling ornate caskets to people during a pandemic.”
Some capacity issues, however, are harder to control. Funeral, cemetery and crematory workers aren’t just processing those killed by the coronavirus. They’re getting infected, too.
It remains unclear how long a body riddled with the coronavirus remains infectious, but workers are getting sick.
“The belief is that you really have to be expelling droplets or that sort of thing, [but] those things can still happen with the decedent,” Fleming said. “We have had funeral directors who have contracted Covid-19.”
Absent a smooth protocol for processing the dead, authorities may have no recourse but to send bodies to the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island.
“Hart Island has plenty of burial space and city burials are much faster than cremation,” said Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, which advocates for greater access to the island. “[The Department of Correction] can bury 25 bodies in an hour on Hart Island. This will be the only option for many of the Covid-19 victims because there is not anywhere near enough capacity at crematoriums or private cemeteries. Funeral directors won’t be able to handle the number of bodies.”