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Pandemic Overwhelms New York City's System For Handling Its Dead

Apr 8, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 11:58 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

New York City has been hit so hard by this global pandemic. The daily death toll there hit a new high this week, and NPR's Greg Allen reports this is overwhelming the region's system for handling the dead.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In New York City, Joseph Lucchese, who owns and directs a funeral home in the Bronx, says the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything he's ever seen. In an interview with WNYC, the Gothamist, he said it's dispelled any doubts he once had about the severity of the outbreak.

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JOSEPH LUCCHESE: When this first started, I really thought it was [expletive]. And it's not. There is a lot of people dying out there, and it's really, really scary.

ALLEN: Funeral homes in the New York City area are being called on to bury more people. At the same time, because of the coronavirus, they have to take precautions and limit the number of funerals they can conduct each day. Some are no longer offering family visitation or services, just direct burial. Mike Lanotte's the head of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

MIKE LANOTTE: There has definitely been a stress on the system. Our funeral directors are working at, you know, maximum capacity right now just trying to serve the families the best they can.

ALLEN: One problem, he says, has been scheduling. Crematories in New York state have been given permission to extend their hours, and some, he says, are operating nearly around the clock. Before coronavirus, about 150 people died in New York City each day; yesterday, more than 800 people died. New York City Councilman Mark Levine says if it doesn't soon level off, the city will likely have to start doing what's called temporary interment - burying the caskets on a city-owned island in the Bronx.

MARK LEVINE: It would be done in a respectful, orderly way. It would be done in a way that allowed these bodies in to be disinterred and given a proper burial at such time as the crisis is over and our normal cemetery system is - and funeral home system is running again.

ALLEN: Levine says 80 refrigerated trailers big enough to hold 100 bodies each have been deployed to hospitals in the city. Some of them have now added extra trailers holding the remains of people who died from COVID-19 or other causes. Patrick Kearns runs four family-owned funeral homes in Queens and Long Island. The pandemic is tough on families who have to bury loved ones without a funeral or visitation. In an interview with WNYC, the Gothamist, he said it's also tough on his staff.

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PATRICK KEARNS: It's a difficult task, and it's a extremely emotionally and physically overwhelming task, you now, to be in a tractor-trailer that is just full of bodies. It's a lot.

ALLEN: Funeral directors say they need help. They're asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow funeral home staff from other states to assist New York colleagues struggling with the pandemic.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.