NEW YORK — 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 Wednesday afternoon, when 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 Thursday they would investigate the matter. But in the past 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.
Cemeteries have scrambled 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.
Funeral directors like 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.
In an average month, Kearns, 50, performs some 30 or 40 funerals, but in April alone he expected 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.
All of this has exacted a toll. 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 worked through the weekends.
The city’s four crematories have also backed up. Like other funeral directors, Kearns has taken bodies to other cities for cremation.
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 run 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.
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.
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,” tentlike 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, 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.
Last year, a total of 280 people were buried on Hart 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.
Since March, 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 used a fleet of 15 vans 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.
While health care workers have been celebrated nationally, the only public accolade that Kearns has gotten came from his daughter. When friends from the Midwest claimed the New York death rate was overblown, Fiona Kearns responded:
“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.”