‘Surrealist’: New York funeral homes struggle as death from virus rises

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NEW YORK –
Pat Marmo walked among twenty deceased people in the basement of his Brooklyn funeral home, his protective mask lowered so that his calls could be heard.

“Every person there is not a body,” he said. “It’s a father, it’s a mother, it’s a grandmother. They are not bodies. They are people. “

Like many funeral homes in New York City and around the world, Marmo’s business is in crisis as it attempts to meet growing demand amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed approximately 1,400 people in New York City alone, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. His two cell phones and the office line ring constantly. He apologizes to families at the start of each conversation for being unusually terse, and urges them to insist that hospitals keep loved ones as long as possible.

His business is equipped to handle 40 to 60 cases at a time, no problem. Thursday morning, he took care of 185.

“This is a state of emergency,” he said. ” We need help. “

Funeral directors are trapped on one side by flooded hospitals trying to unload the bodies, and on the other by the fact that cemeteries and crematoriums are reserved for at least a week, sometimes two.

Marmo let the Associated Press enter his Daniel J. Schaefer funeral home in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood on Thursday to show how dire the situation has become.

He has about 20 embalmed bodies stored on gutters and stacked on shelves in the basement and a dozen in his secondary chapel room, both refrigerated by air conditioners.

He estimated that more than 60% had died from the new coronavirus. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but for some, especially the elderly and people with existing health conditions, it can cause more serious illness and death.

“It’s surreal,” he said.

New York hospitals use refrigerated trucks to store the dead, and Marmo tries to find his own. One company quoted him a price of $ 6,000 a month, and others flatly refuse because they don’t want their equipment used for bodies.

Even if he gets a truck, he has nowhere to put it. He wonders if the police station across the street could let him use his driveway.

He also hopes that the Environmental Protection Agency will lift regulations that limit the opening hours of crematoriums. This would reduce part of the backlog.

“I need someone to help me,” he said. “Maybe if they send me refrigeration or guide me so that I can install a refrigerated trailer that I can keep and supervise.”

Patrick Kearns, fourth generation funeral director in Queens, said the industry has never experienced anything like this. His family was ready on 9-11 for their business to be invaded, but with so many bodies lost in the rubble, the rush never came.

He sees it now. Kearns’s Rego Park business is minutes from Elmhurst Hospital, a city hotspot that has itself become the epicenter of the American epidemic. During the first 15 days of March, the four family funeral homes organized 15 services. In the second half of the month, they had 40.

Like Marmo, Kearns transformed a small chapel into a makeshift refrigerator with an air conditioner. Other funeral directors told The Associated Press this week that they were ready to take similar action.

The increase in the death toll comes at a time when there are strict restrictions on rallies, which says goodbye to a lonely process.

A family at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery this week leaned on a yellow cord chain and threw roses at the coffin of a loved one. Another in Queens made his last farewell through the windows of their cars. In a Bronx cemetery, where visitors were barred entirely, a funeral director stood above the grave and took pictures to send to the mourners.

“The whole process, including the family’s experience at the funeral, is sort of isolation rather than support,” said Bonnie Dixon, president of the Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens.

Jackie McQuade, funeral director at the Schuyler Hill funeral home in the Bronx, had a hard time saying no to families. But she has no choice, given the rules limiting services to the immediate family only, if that.

A cemetery with which she worked has closed its doors to her family and friends. Only she and a priest were allowed to go to the site of a burial. She photographed the coffin being lowered, hoping it could bring some closure to the family.

“We would go crazy if he was one of our loved ones,” she said. “We are carrying bad news in addition to a sad situation. “

Marmo said he was barely asleep from stress, worried about forgetting a small but critical task, like removing someone’s ring before it was cremated.

He is preparing to hold a funeral Friday for a 36-year-old New York subway driver who died last week while helping passengers evacuate a burning train. There will be limited service in his main chapel, where he has 10 chairs, aligned in two rows with 6 feet (2 meters) between each. The best he can do while respecting the guidelines of “social distancing.”

“The guy deserves a funeral in the Canyon of Heroes,” said Marmo, referring to a stretch of Broadway in lower Manhattan where the parades of anime are traditionally held. “Is he going to get it? He’s not going to get it. And it’s horrible. “

Correction:

This story has been updated to correct the name of one of the funeral homes at the Daniel J. Schaefer funeral home, not the David J. Schaefer funeral home.

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