New York has been the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak since March. The city has had more than 16,000 deaths likely linked to the novel coronavirus, according to data released by officials. Many funeral homes have been overwhelmed in recent weeks, after six times the average number of people died in the city in less than two months.
New York police arrived at Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Services on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn at 11:20 a.m. Wednesday and discovered dozens of bodies stacked inside two U-Haul trucks parked near the building, police sources told The Washington Post. They also found two refrigerated trucks holding bodies.
The funeral home did not immediately return messages left by The Post Wednesday night.
As he visited the funeral home on Wednesday afternoon, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams suggested that the disturbing scene was a symptom of insufficient resources for funeral homes and morgues, which have been overwhelmed with bodies as hundreds of people died of covid-19 in New York every day for more than a month.
“This is exactly what I spoke about over the weekend regarding the urgent need for reform in the handling of bodies and burial processes,” Adams said in a tweet Wednesday. “We demand decent treatment of our deceased.”
I'm heading out to Flatlands right now to investigate this complaint. This is exactly what I spoke about over the weekend regarding the urgent need for reform in the handling of bodies and burial processes. We demand decent treatment of our deceased. https://t.co/iaa4i6KKio— Eric Adams (@BPEricAdams) April 29, 2020
City officials proposed temporarily freezing the bodies of coronavirus victims and deployed “mobile morgues,” refrigerated trailers that can hold bodies, to support overwhelmed funeral homes, morgues and crematories. The move was intended to give families more time to claim the bodies of family members, after the number of unclaimed bodies buried at Hart Island increased by fivefold in early April. Hart Island is a public cemetery and mass grave in the Bronx where the city buries people whose bodies go unclaimed and those whose families cannot afford another option.
Police responded to calls from neighbors, who reported the U-Haul trucks on Wednesday morning. Lt. John Grimpel, a New York police spokesman, told The Post that officers did not issue any summons. He added that the New York Police Department is not currently investigating any crimes related to the incident.
The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also responded to the scene, Grimpel said, and health department officials will continue to investigate and could issue summons for improperly handling human remains. A spokesperson for the department did not immediately return a request for comment late Wednesday.
It is unclear when the funeral home began using the U-Haul vehicles in addition to the refrigerated trucks parked on the street.
WABC reported that the owner of the funeral home told city officials his freezer stopped working.
“I’ve seen bodies stacked up on top of one another inside the trucks with both doors open,” resident Abdul Kamara told the New York Daily News. “It’s been going on since the beginning of covid. These people have passed. This is not the way they should be treated on the way out.”
The scene of bodies being moved out of the U-Haul trucks recalled stories from other countries hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, where deaths increased so fast that funeral homes could not keep up.
A family in Italy was trapped inside a home for days with a relative who had died from the virus last month. Funeral homes refused to take the body, in part because they were not adequately equipped. In Ecuador, people began leaving bodies on the street after officials delayed picking them up for days.
After police discovered the bodies, city officials sent refrigerated trucks and helped the funeral home employees transfer the bodies into the mobile coolers, WABC reported.
The city sent David Penepent, an independent funeral director who teaches at SUNY Canton, to help the home’s owner find a way to appropriately store human remains amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“This funeral home is over-capacitated with human remains,” Penepent told WABC. “He got overwhelmed with the number of remains that he had and he didn’t know what to do and I’m here to assist him in this operation.”
John DiPietro, another neighbor to the funeral home, told the New York Post that he had also seen bodies placed in the trucks for weeks.
“You don’t respect the dead that way,” he told the newspaper. “That could have been my father, my brother.”