Addresses City’s Overwhelmed “Death Care System”
On Monday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams convened funeral home directors, faith leaders, morgue operators, cemeteries, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), and other stakeholders for a Bereavement Task Force call on the Zoom platform as the city continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
To date, it is estimated that more than 18,000 people in New York City have died due to COVID-19. In recent weeks, funeral homes have reported being overwhelmed by the number of decedents, which was vividly illustrated last week when dozens of bodies were discovered in a U-Haul truck outside a funeral home in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn. Borough President Adams and members of the task force discussed potential policy solutions that ensure decedents are being treated in a dignified manner, and which allow their loved ones to lay their bodies to rest peacefully.
Last week, Borough President Adams stood outside the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to demand reforms in the way bodies are handled and laid to rest. Among the changes he called for were extending the hours morgues were open across the city to allow funeral homes to retrieve the bodies, and mandating that non-private cemeteries across the state double the capacity of burials.
“Even a public health crisis of this magnitude should not get in the way of treating decedents with basic dignity, said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “These aren’t just pieces of flesh; these are our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, loved ones. We must institute common-sense reforms to make our handling of bodies more respectful and allow families to have the comfort of a proper, quick ceremony [since not everyone buries their dead]. That’s why we are convening this task force today — to come up with a comprehensive set of proposals to ensure that the unimaginable pain of losing a loved one is not compounded by seeing their body treated in a disrespectful manner.”
New York City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Barbara Sampson committed the cooperation of her office.
“We remain dedicated to supporting the funerary industry and the families they serve in these complex times, through streamlining our processes and offering expanded pickup times to funeral directors working with us,” said Sampson. “We will work closely with stakeholders, as well as the Office of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to help ensure continuity in service and support standards throughout the death-management system. Treating the dead with dignity and respect remains the guiding principle of our work.”
“We thank Borough President Adams for the opportunity to participate on the committee,” said New York State Funeral Directors Association Executive Director Michael Lanotte. “Our approach with our members from the beginning of the pandemic has been that we cannot over-communicate throughout the crisis, and the committee’s discussion is consistent with that approach. Efforts like this help all stakeholders in deathcare have the tools and resources needed to ensure we are helping families through the difficult days following the loss of a loved one,”
“At no time in recent history has New York City’s deathcare industry faced a crisis of this proportion,” said Green-Wood Cemetery President Richard J. Moylan. “Morgues, funeral homes, and cemeteries are nearing the breaking point. Green-Wood applauds Borough President Adams for his leadership in seeking commonsense and realistic solutions to this problem. Working together we will ensure that every family affected by a COVID-19 death is treated with the utmost respect and dignity in their time of grief,”
During the call, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner highlighted three recent policy changes to help the “deathcare” system function more smoothly.
A location to store bodies is being set up at Pier 39 to ease the burden on funeral homes and extend the window during which bodies can be retrieved before they are buried temporarily or permanently at Hart Island.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) will be distributed to cemetery workers and funeral home workers.
The Office of the Medical Examiner will be extending its operating hours to 10:30 PM every day.
Bernice Green of Our Time Press asked, “Borough President Adams, it’s a matter of life or death with Cuomo as the leader. And you are saying we need to honor everything about these deaths? Do you know of anyone who has the coronavirus or who has passed away, and what are your personal feelings about it?
Adams: Well I’ve had five personal friends who passed away, and it really personifies the depth of COVID. One of them was a rookie police officer that I trained. Another was my mentor who taught me to go into politics, that I’ve known for over 40 years—Dr Roy Hastick.
So this is not only a professional pursuit, it’s a personal pursuit. And I believe that COVID-19… revealed how we must rethink about how we govern in cities and across America. And there’s going to be a great opportunity for reflection. But even in the period of reflection, there are things we can do now that can save lives.
We should have never sent our essential employees into harm’s way. And we knew it was harm’s way—such as an inability to socially distance or to shelter in place, an inability to do their jobs.
And we appear to be making some adjustments [but] we should not have had a stockpile of masks in the MTA and not get those masks to employees until eighty of our men and women die.
And so, when we look at this again, I think that the country made some moves that we need to really have a close examination of. And some of the examination is going to come after COVID 19, but some should take place now so we could readjust what we’re doing.
This is not a professional pursuit to make sure we are equitable in addressing this, it’s a personal pursuit. It’s traumatic to know and to lose five people that I had a longstanding relationship. COVID 19 is here for a period of time. But we’re losing people we knew for a lifetime. Thank you.