The 40-foot trailer has been there for weeks, parked outside the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home in Queens. Its refrigerator hums in an alley next to a check-cashing establishment. Thirty-six bodies, one atop the other, are stacked on shelves inside.
The funeral director, Patrick Kearns, has barely slept since the day he took charge of them. As he lies awake in the middle of the night, he knows there will be more.
“It weighs on you, having so many cases in your care,” he said. “The death rate is just so high, there’s no way we can bury or cremate them fast enough.”
With more than 18,000 announced fatalities and a total death toll that is almost certainly higher, the coronavirus crisis is the worst mass casualty event to hit New York since the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago.
At the height of the outbreak in April, a New Yorker was dying almost every two minutes — more than 800 per day, or four times the city’s normal death rate. And though the daily toll has recently slowed, hundreds of bodies are still emerging each day from private homes and hospitals.
While hospitals bore the initial brunt of the crisis as sick people flooded emergency rooms, the sheer volume of human remains has pushed the system for caring for the dead to its limits, too: Hospital morgues, funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories are all overflowing and backed up.
The scale of the problem was brought into sharp relief on Wednesday afternoon, when the police found dozens of decomposing bodies stashed inside two trucks outside a funeral home on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The owner, Andrew T. Cleckley, said he had nowhere else to put them, adding simply: “I ran out of space.”
What happened in Brooklyn appears to be an extreme case, and state health officials said on Thursday they would investigate the matter. But in the last two months, funeral home directors have begun to store bodies in viewing rooms and chapels, turning up their air-conditioning systems to avoid decomposition. Some are transporting bodies to other cities and states to be cremated.
Some hospitals ran out of body bags — the city has since distributed 20,000 — and others have used forklifts to transfer piles of corpses into makeshift mobile morgues. So many people have been dying at home that the medical examiner’s office has turned to teams of soldiers working around the clock to pick them up.
Cemetery administrators have been scrambling to meet the need for burials, and the city’s four crematories are backed up for weeks. To stave off a secondary public health emergency, any bodies left unclaimed for 14 days were, for a time, being buried at a potter’s field on Hart Island in the Bronx.
For the families of the dead, the overloaded system has turned the already painful act of mourning into a kind of anxious torture. Some have found it hard to track the bodies of their loved ones as they move from morgue to morgue. Others have had trouble hiring hearses, which are now in high demand.
Because of social distancing rules, wakes are often not permitted, and funerals that once took days to arrange can sometimes now take weeks — if they can happen at all. Even when they do occur, extended families are not supposed to touch one another or get too close as they stand beside a grave.
“We wanted to grieve together, and we weren’t able to,” said Reginald Teekasingh, whose grandfather was buried by Mr. Kearns. “Nothing was like it should be.”
Funeral directors like Mr. Kearns have found themselves in the middle of a logjam, besieged at one end by constant calls for pickups from hospitals or nursing homes and stymied at the other by an inability to cremate or bury people quickly.
A fourth-generation funeral director, Mr. Kearns, 50, has always thought of himself as “a final responder” to the neighborhoods his family has served since 1900. Some of those communities, like Richmond Hill, Jackson Heights and Corona in Queens, have been among the hardest-hit sections of New York.
In an average month, Mr. Kearns performs some 30 or 40 funerals, but in April alone he expected the number to be about 200. And that, he said, was on top of the 150 more he was asked to do but couldn’t because he lacked the energy and equipment. His supply of caskets has at times run short.
Though he has spent his life around death, Mr. Kearns has never seen anything like the coronavirus crisis. Death certificates have been difficult to file; cremation permits have been hard to obtain; and keeping track of the endless wave of bodies has been harrowing.
“My stress levels just keep going up,” he said.
On April 17, for instance, Mr. Kearns dispatched two assistants to Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens to retrieve a body, but the person they had been sent to find was not on the correct shelf in the hospital’s mobile morgue. Locating the body required hunting through dozens of others in the darkness with a flashlight, comparing names and numbers with the data in their log.
All of this has exacted a toll. In the past few weeks, Mr. Kearns said, he has lost 20 pounds and missed most family dinners. On a recent evening, working in his trailer, he tripped and smashed his head against a shelf. After blacking out, he woke on the floor among the corpses. His wife and business partner forced him to go home.
“I’m looking forward to the end,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
At most of the city’s 50 cemeteries, telephones have been constantly ringing. On the grounds outside, digging crews have been working through the weekends.
“We’re swamped — absolutely swamped,” said Julie Bose, the president of The Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the number of funerals has tripled. “And that’s every day, day in, day out.”
The city’s four crematories have also backed up. Like other funeral directors, Mr. Kearns has been taking bodies to other cities for cremation. A few weeks ago he reached a deal with a crematory in Schenectady, about 145 miles north of New York City, to avoid the crush downstate.
Anticipating the surge, officials in New York relaxed restrictions on city crematories in late March, allowing them to work around the clock. Each has recently been running at double its capacity. None, however, were accepting new appointments until well into May.
On a recent week, the crematory at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn handled about 130 cases — more than double its typical load. Richard Moylan, the cemetery’s president, said that two of his five ovens had broken down from overuse.
“The chambers need a break,” Mr. Moylan said, “but as fast as we cremate people, they keep coming in.”
It was much the same at the Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, Queens, where the four cast-iron units are handling more than 75 bodies each week, up from the usual 45.
Mr. Cleckley, in an effort to explain how dozens of decomposing bodies ended up in trucks at his funeral home, said one of his drivers had arrived at the gates of a city crematory at 6 a.m. on a recent morning to find 15 vehicles from other funeral homes ahead of him. “People are spending all night at crematories waiting to get seen,” he said.
Dan Wright, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 813, which represents about 500 funeral service workers in the New York area, put it bluntly: “People are dying faster than we can get them to their final destinations.”
Funerals, limited to 10 or fewer people, at times look like a kind of dark ballet. As mourners wait in their cars, crews in masks and gloves put caskets into the ground. Families gather graveside — not too close together — only after the diggers have moved away.
“I don’t know how I would have felt if I had to bury my mother under these conditions,” said John Blumer, a grave digger at the New Montefiore Cemetery on Long Island. “The body goes down to the ground alone. It’s hard for them.”
When Cruz Morales, 75, died at a nursing home in the Bronx earlier this month, her son Jose spent nearly a week making calls, looking online and going door to door in an attempt to find a funeral director. With no success, he began to worry that St. Barnabas Hospital, which had claimed his mother’s body, would have to send it on to a public morgue.
“My worst fear was that I didn’t want my mother’s body to be dumped somewhere and then I have to look for her all over the city,” Mr. Morales said.
Last week, he finally found someone at the D’Bari Funeral Home on East 188th Street who could help him — or so he thought at first. Mr. Morales, a Pentecostal Christian, wanted his mother to be buried. But the wait for a cemetery plot was far too long, and the staff at D’Bari was only scheduling cremations.
With no other options, Mr. Morales agreed to a cremation, knowing that while he might not get to see his mother off, she would at least be able to rest in peace. “Even though it’s not what we hoped for,” he said, “I feel so secure.”
For Mr. Teekasingh, whose grandfather died of the virus, the hardest part of the process was picking only 10 relatives to attend the burial. The rest of the family had to watch by Skype.
“A lot of us were not able to see him when he passed,” he said. “It was not normal.”
A Race to the Morgue
Near the middle of April, Mr. Kearns got a panicked call from a client. She had just found out, she said, that her father had died from the virus two weeks earlier at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Was there anything he could do?
Knowing time was short, Mr. Kearns called the hospital and discovered that the man, who had been unclaimed for more than 14 days, had already been scheduled for burial on Hart Island. Mr. Kearns and his team rushed to Montefiore — a race to see if they could beat the transport unit from the medical examiner before it took the man away.
“In the end,” Mr. Kearns said, “we were able to get there first.”
In normal times, the medical examiner’s office would involve itself in a death only if it was sudden, violent or unexpected. But during the pandemic, the office has become the official backstop for an overburdened system.
Dr. Barbara Sampson, the city’s chief medical examiner, said that the city had managed to double its capacity for body storage — to about 1,800 — by setting up four portable “disaster morgues,” tent-like structures in secluded areas, in addition to its fixed mortuary buildings.
The expansion allowed the office to lift the 14-day deadline for funeral directors to pick up a person’s remains before they are sent to Hart Island. Instead of using the potter’s field, Dr. Sampson said her agency would soon start letting families freeze the bodies of their loved ones as a “long-term storage option” at the disaster morgues.
“I’m confident,” Dr. Sampson said, “that we will have enough capacity to be able to hold people appropriately with dignity and respect until the funeral industry can catch up.”
Though officials have declined to say how many coronavirus victims have been buried on Hart Island in recent weeks, the numbers tell the story. Last year, a total of 280 people were buried on the island. This year, 550 people have already been buried there, 450 of them in the past two months alone.
Some hospitals were seemingly caught short by the sheer number of bodies the crisis produced, running low on body bags as their small, in-house morgues filled up. Many were forced to improvise with refrigerated trailers that the city rushed to them.
At Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, one doctor recalled that after a coronavirus patient died in bed, his body lay untouched for six or seven hours. The hospital morgue was already full. There was nowhere else for the man to go.
At St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, the chief executive, Dr. David Perlstein, said the city had told him that no one would come to pick up the bodies until there were 100 in his trailer. To increase capacity, he was advised to build a row of shelves.
Since March, Dr. Sampson’s office has distributed roughly 150 refrigerated trailers among the city’s roughly 60 hospitals. The medical examiner has also brought on more than 200 soldiers and airmen from the Army, the National Guard and the Air National Guard to bolster its normal mortuary work.
Four-person military teams have been using a fleet of 15 vans, most of them rented, to pick up bodies from private homes when families cannot afford a funeral director or when no next of kin can be determined.
In March and April, the recovery teams picked up 4,729 bodies, more than double the number for the same period last year. Some survivors have reported waiting hours in the presence of the dead for the units to arrive.
Dr. Sampson has also reassigned more than a third of her 800-member work force to front-line jobs, including nearly 200 highly trained scientists from the agency’s DNA lab. They are answering phones, conducting investigations and helping out in the morgues.
“We have had to increase every aspect, basically, of what we can do,” she said.
Every night at 7, New Yorkers celebrate the city’s health care workers with a salute of horns, songs and clanging pots and pans. Nothing similar exists for the grave diggers, cemetery receptionists and funeral directors.
“These people are the hidden heroes of this disaster,” said Dr. Emily Craig, who works with a federal database of missing persons. “They work tirelessly.”
The only public accolade that Mr. Kearns has gotten came from his daughter, Fiona Kearns. A few years ago, Ms. Kearns worked as a teacher in Missouri, and earlier this month, as the dying reached its peak, some of her friends from the Midwest posted Facebook messages claiming the death rate in New York was overblown.
On April 17, she put up her own message, describing the grueling days and nights that Mr. Kearns was spending with the dead.
“If you would like to look my father up, his name is Patrick Kearns,” she wrote. “He is my hero and currently working 16 hours a day.”
Edgar Sandoval, Nicole Hong, Ali Watkins and Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.