Temporary NYC morgue with refrigerated trucks still has 200 bodies

Mobile Brooklyn morgue set up to deal with NYC’s COVID dead still has 200 unclaimed bodies inside – with some families still ignoring requests to claim their dead as officials prepare to bury remaining bodies on Hart Island

  • A temporary morgue set up in Brooklyn using refrigerated trailers still has around 200 unclaimed bodies 
  • NYC officials are preparing to bury the bodies on Hart Island, which is a public cemetery used to bury unclaimed dead or for people who can’t afford burials
  • The plan is to bury all the unclaimed bodies by August  
  • New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner has made last-ditch efforts to contact a next of kin, but many families ignored city officials’ calls 
  • The morgue was set up on the Brooklyn pier in April 2020 because NYC’s funeral homes were overburdened during the height of the pandemic

A temporary morgue set up in Brooklyn to help deal with New York’s COVID fatalities still has around 200 bodies inside it. 

NYC officials are now preparing to inter the remains of those held in the refrigerated truck trailers on Hart Island, which is public cemetery used to bury unclaimed dead or for people who can’t afford burials.   

The number of unclaimed bodies is down from 350 since mid-May. Not all of those being held in the makeshift morgues died of COVID, with many sent there because the city’s existing morgues and funeral homes had been overwhelmed with deaths caused by the virus.

But the number still being held is unlikely to get much lower, with city bosses now preparing to lay those bodies to rest on the public cemetery, which sits on Long Island Sound in the north eastern part of the Bronx. 

City officials said in May that they expected the remaining unclaimed bodies to be buried by August. 

New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner made its last-ditch efforts to contact a next of kin, but many families ignored city officials’ calls.

Many of the bodies are people who were likely estranged from their families or come from families who can’t afford the burial or cremation fees, which can cost between $6,500 and $9,000. 

The ‘disaster morgue’ was set up on the 39th Street Pier in April 2020 to help overwhelmed funeral homes at the height of the pandemic. At its peak, the cooled containers held about 3,000 bodies. 

The estimated 200 unclaimed bodies that are currently there now have been stored in the refrigerated trucks for months to over a year. 

Some New Yorkers are troubled that hundreds of others at the ‘disaster morgue’ still wait to be laid to rest.

‘Still these bodies wait – for what?’ asks Kiki Valentine, a Brooklyn minister and funeral services assistant. She wrote to officials to seek an explanation and propose steps she feels could help, such as publishing public obituaries for the deceased.

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About 200 bodies still remain in refrigerated box trucks in the temporary ‘disaster morgue’ on the Brooklyn pier 

Bodies are moved to a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue on April 6, 2020

Unclaimed bodies will be buried on Hart Island like they were in this photo last April

The unclaimed bodies are expected to be buried or cremated by the end of August. Pictured: Refrigerated truck at a Brooklyn pier holding the bodies of coronavirus victims in November 2020

During pre-pandemic times, bodies can remain in the city’s morgues for up to 60 days before the city usually buries people free of charge on Hart Island.

That policy was paused during the pandemic to lighten the burden on the city’s funeral homes and to accommodate victims’ families who needed time make final arrangements, as funeral homes faced huge backlogs. 

The fenced-off temporary morgue on a pier in an industrial part of Brooklyn has been out of sight and mind for many as New York City celebrates its pandemic progress by dropping restrictions and setting off fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July. 

Island of forgotten souls: Hart Island – New York’s public cemetery for the unknown and unclaimed

Hart Island, 131-acre mass burial site in the Long Island Sound on the northeastern edge of the Bronx, has served as New York City’s public cemetery for centuries.

Over a million people are buried on the island, most are unknown.

Since 1869, prison labor has been used to bury unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves of 150 adults or 1000 infants. 

The unclaimed bodies will be buried on Hart Island, which is located in the northeastern section of the Bronx 

NYC Parks and Recreation assumed jurisdiction on December 4, 2019. 

The Hart Island Project created a database that includes 72,251 people buried on the island since 1980. 

An estimated 2,666 adults were buried on Hart Island in 2020 and 504 have been buried there as of May 2021, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Typically, between 1,000 and 1,200 people are buried there each year.

But as the Big Apple remains to normalcy, the grim reality sets in that these bodies have to be buried. 

An estimated 2,666 adults were buried on Hart Island in 2020 and 504 were buried in 2021 as of May, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Typically, between 1,000 and 1,200 people are buried there each year, with the island believed to have witnessed around a million burials since it was turned into a cemetery.

Some people hastily buried on Hart Island at the height of COVID have since been exhumed and reburied elsewhere at the request of their loved ones.  

A press representative for the medical examiner’s office wasn’t available for comment Monday because of the holiday. 

Virus deaths alone peaked above 800 a day citywide at one point in April 2020 – deaths from all causes usually average about 150 – and overwhelmed funeral homes, cemeteries and hospital morgues.  

In total, 33,436 New Yorkers died of COVID-19, as of July 5. 

‘There was way too much death for the system to handle,’ recalls Amy Koplow, the executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which is interring some Jewish people who were at the temporary morgue.

‘We feel really good that we are able to bury these people who have been unburied and in limbo for so long,’ she said.

Still, Koplow feels the medical examiner’s office did its best in a maelstrom. Many cases require considerable searching for relatives, a will or other indications of the deceased’s wishes, she noted.

As the medical examiner’s office prepares to close the temporary facility, the agency has stopped taking newly deceased people there, and investigators are working to contact relatives and determine final arrangements for the roughly 200 whose remains are left, spokesman Mark Desire said via email last week.

Desire didn’t respond to questions about where bodies removed from the facility have been taken, why the temporary morgue stayed in use after the 2020 surge subsided or how many of the deceased there are virus victims.

Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral hopeful Eric Adams has asked City Hall to ensure that every effort is made to reach relatives of the deceased and help with applications for government-paid funeral reimbursement, spokesman Ryan Lynch said. 

The city can provide up to $1,700, and a federal program specific to COVID-19 deaths allows up to $9,000. Burial on Hart Island is free. 

Four people – James Brown, George Davis, Diane Quince and Charles Varga – were buried in mid-June in Staten Island’s Ocean View Cemetery. Officials couldn’t find any next of kin.

‘But we know that they lived, not friendless, but with friends and family,’ Edwina Frances Martin, Staten Island´s public administrator of estates, told a handful of Brown´s friends and volunteers who attend such funerals. ‘Because now they´re all part of our family. And we´re a part of theirs.’

Edwina Frances Martin, Staten Island’s public administrator of estates, left, says a few words during a burial of four people at a cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York on June 17

A group primarily of volunteers attend the burial of four people at a cemetery in the Staten Island  on June 17

Siva Sriskanda takes a picture of the casket of James Brown, a friend and employee, after a short burial service at a cemetery in the Staten Island on June 17

Meanwhile, Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips – who has organized volunteers to keep at-home vigils for the dead around the world, especially the unclaimed and unnamed – ventures periodically to an unobtrusive spot near the temporary morgue. She goes to bear witness ‘to what is not seen, and those who are not named,’ she says.

The pain surrounding the facility’s creation and continued use ‘highlights the difficulties of how we honor the dead,’ she says.

The group at the Ocean View cemetery on June 17 was there to bear witness, too.

‘We don’t want them to go to their final resting place alone,’ said Diane Kramer, a volunteer with a charity called the Foundation for Dignity. It works with Martin’s office, which arranged the burial at the private cemetery.

Little information could be confirmed about Davis, who was 76, and Quince, 62.

Varga, 81, had a background in information science and business consulting, spoke four languages and worked in recent years on a documentary film about homelessness, according to his social media profiles.

He was in poor health, said friend Sandra Andrews, who said he was estranged from his relatives but became a father figure to her after they met in 2010. She said she tried to find out what happened to him after he was hospitalized in February but learned of his Feb. 2 death only from The Associated Press.

‘I didn’t get an opportunity to properly say goodbye to him,’ she said by email.

Brown, 51, was a taxi driver and dispatcher on and off for 30 years, according to co-worker Desereeanne Fisher and boss Anton Kumar.

They said Brown was hardworking and sometimes even slept in the office, where co-workers still have his beloved bowling ball.

Edwina Frances Martin, Staten Island’s public administrator of estates, wipes away tears as she says a few words during a burial for four people at a cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York on June 17

The casket of James Brown sits atop its resting place at a cemetery in Staten Island on June 17

He told friends he’d been disconnected from his family since childhood, but he was ‘a friend to everybody,’ Fisher said, wiping tears. ‘Anything you needed, he would do for you.’

Brown fell and hit his head at a convenience store this past March 2 and was found dead in his van minutes later, killed by a blood clot, Fisher said. She said his colleagues wanted to arrange and chip in for a funeral but hit roadblocks because they weren’t relatives.

‘It’s been no closure’ since his death, she said, relieved to know he’d finally been buried in a shady plot, with a plaque dedicated by his friends.

‘He might not have had family,’ she said, ‘but he had a lot of people that loved him.’

Shannon Walters, of the John Vincent Scalia Home for Funerals, stands by as people leave after the burial of four people at a cemetery in the Staten Island

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