New York City Is Running Out of Places to Bury Bodies

The potter’s field on Hart Island. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, New York City Council chair on health Mark Levine tweeted that New York hospitals and morgues are running out of places to store bodies and are considering a plan to bury the dead in trenches at a public park. But both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio pushed back on the idea, saying the city was considering other alternatives.

“If we need to do temporary burials to be able to tide us over to pass the crisis and then work with each family on their appropriate arrangements, we have the ability to do that,” Mayor de Blasio said at a press conference at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “Obviously, the place we have used historically is Hart Island.”

As of Monday morning, the city’s COVID-19 death toll stands at 2,475. Normally, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner has room for about 900 bodies at its facilities. To cope, the medical examiner has dispatched 45 trailers to hospitals to provide cold storage units for the bodies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is supplying another 85 trailers, which are expected to arrive soon. Each trailer can hold 100 bodies, but, according to Levine, those units are running out of space.

Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokesperson for the OCME, said that while contingency plans to bury bodies at Hart Island and in public parks do exist, neither of those plans is being implemented right now. She would not provide information as to how much capacity the city’s freezers have left.

The Department of Correction manages the city cemetery on Hart Island, an islet in the western crook of the Long Island Sound. According to the DOC, prisoners who have been convicted by the city regularly help with burials there. Now, prisoners are being offered $6 an hour to help bury bodies amid the pandemic. (A spokesperson for the Department of Correction said that “the department has carried out the solemn duty of overseeing burials on Hart Island for over 50 years, and we will continue to do so until operations are transferred to the Parks Department.”) The OCME’s pandemic surge plan, which was first drafted in 2008, listed Hart Island as a possible destination for bodies, but neither the DOC nor the OCME would confirm whether the bodies currently being buried there are those of the coronavirus victims.

The Department of Defense has sent 42 mortuary-affairs officers to help manage the flow of bodies, and the New York Air National Guard has sent a team to assist as well. But coroners around the city are contending with more than just confirmed coronavirus deaths. According to Levine, between 200 and 215 people are dying at home every day (the city normally averages 20 to 25), and very few of those bodies are being tested for the coronavirus, meaning the true death toll is likely higher than 2,475.

New York City Is Running Out of Places to Bury Bodies