How NYC Is Burying The Dead During Coronavirus

[Warning: Distressing Themes]

“We are experiencing the loss of 9/11 a couple times a week potentially. And that’s going on week after week.”

In the age of the novel coronavirus, mass burials and Zoom funerals might just be the new normal. And New York City, the current epicenter of the virus, is being hit hard. The U.S. government had to supply the city with military assistance and 100,000 body bags. There are reports of funeral homes overwhelmed with bodies having to turn families away because they lack space to store them.

What does dying during a pandemic look like? And what does it ultimately mean for the future of funerals?

#Covid19 #DeathCare #NewYork

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Transcript

Mass burials,funerals postponed indefinitely,mobile morgues shipped outand Zoom funerals?These are some of the
many ways countriesaround the world are
handling the more than200,000 people dead as a result of the novel coronavirus. This is just unprecedentedin the history of this city or country. We are experiencing the loss of a 9/11 a couple times a week. That's going on week after week. For now,it's meant huge changesto the rituals of how people say goodbye – and, ultimately, grieve.When a funeral takes place, tons of people come out because it's a loved one,
a community member. Now with corona and the pandemic, loved ones can't be with
their family members in thehospital as they're
taking their last breaths.Will this pandemic change
the way society mourns?Italy was the first European
country to lock down -but those measures didn't
stop its death toll from quickly exceeding China's.Italians were told funerals
were canceled indefinitely.It hit hard in a
country still heavilyinfluenced by strong Roman Catholic
values and traditions.People were reportedly dying
alone, with their bodies sealed in their homes because Italy was
running out of coffinsto store them. Army convoys had to dispose of bodies.Undertakers were infected on the job,despite wearing protective gear. Within a matter of days,Italy would also have to make
huge changes to its daily life,and countries around the
world would soon follow. The U.S. now has more than a million
confirmed cases of COVID-19,with the highest numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in New York City. To call New York
the epicenter of corona in the United States wouldn't even do justice to
what's really happening here.The number of people dying
in New York City is probably5 or more times regular levels. We are so far beyond the normal
pace of deathsin New York City, and we need
to take extraordinary measures.It's like Italy was. Doctors lacking PPE,funeral homes overwhelmed, regional lockdowns,
and, in some places, military intervention.But unlike Italy, New York was already
struggling with finding places to bury the
dead before the pandemiceven started.I represent a district in northern
Manhattan that has beenextremely hard-hit by this virus,disproportionately,as have all communities of color
throughout New York City and all low-income communities
really nationally.The result is that we've
had a lot of fatalities. My office is called on regularly by families who are not able
to get a funeral home or not able to get cremation services. This is really tough.Religious communities
across the U.S. have been hit hard by
the novel coronavirus. This is a look inside the Islamic
International Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York. It shows the strain death care
workers are facing. The ritual washing that we would do is not something that is possible both for just kind of the safety
of the funeral home staff,as well as this literal seal
that is on most of these bodies.Once New York's hospitals
became overwhelmed,the Federal Emergency Management
Agency stepped in to supply refrigerator trucks to
serve as temporary morgues.Then came the 100,000 body bags
from the department of defenseto account for what was
described as abest-case scenario death toll.But, even with the
government's assistance,the city's hospitals have
limited room to store bodies.This is a major challenge forboth the Muslim and Jewish
communities of New York City, wherea quick burial
is the traditionand where there are strict levels
of observance related to burial.This means funeral homes,
morgues and crematories are hitting capacity,even those operating 24 hours
a day with military assistance.The prayer is, instead
of presided over by hundreds if not thousands, will
be at most like a handful of people,and they will then take the body
to the burial siteand the burial grounds are
also restrictingthe number of funerals that
can happen in a day,which adds further
delay to it.So, all in all, it creates a lot
of challenge, a lot of stress,a lot of emotional kind of angst
for people whose loved oneshave passed away.Add into the mix a lack of PPE
for morticians and their staff,the combination has crippled
New York's death care systemand forced city officials to look
towards its backup plan.This plan was originally
established back in 2008. The “Pandemic Influenza
Surge Plan” wasmade by New York’s
chief medical examiner.The document states that if
and when the city runs out ofspace for bodies, temporary
internment would occur atHart Island. Hart Island has been part of
the history of New Yorkfor 150 years since the Civil War.And it's been a part of
almost every major episodefrom smallpox to tuberculosis
to the Spanish flu. Hart has always been a place where
people who had no other optionhave been buried, and so it's people
who perhaps died withoutthe money for private burial or died
isolated, perhaps because theywere homeless, had no
next of kin.This is a little bit different now.There just isn't
enough capacity in funeral homes and
in private cemeteries. But this 1-mile stretch of
land that’s home to more thana million bodies was already
on its way to reaching capacity.Mass graves stacked
on top of each other. More than 100
bodies buried per burial plot. And the island itself is owned
by the Department of Corrections, which means that for over
150 years, prisoners from nearbyRikers Island have buried
New York's unclaimed bodies.It's like a twist
out of a Dickens novelthat we'd have inmates
doing that work. However, one thing
has changed. Prisoners for the first time ever
started to refuse to do this workbecause of their
understandable fearof catching the virus
from the bodies.Now the burials there
are being doneno longer by inmates,
but by a private contractor.And if you’re wondering why
the city can’t just go aheadand cremate bodies to make more
space, there are several reasons. One, cremation laws.Each state has specific regulations
when it comes to cremation. New York’s laws specifically
state that an individual cannotbe cremated without
written consent fromthat individual or
immediate family.Within certain religions, for
example Islam and Judaism,cremation is
strictly forbidden. a lot of Muslim leaders have
had conversations with the mayor's office to
discuss what that means and they've given complete assurance
that there will be no cremation,which is problematic in
our religious tradition,nor will there be any
mass burial grounds. Even if the body isn’t
cremated, a quick mass burialgoes against many
religious beliefs.But according to the officials,there really isn't another
option, even for those who die with family who are
actively engaged and evenfamily who have
financial resources.It's not really about
that right now. There just isn't
enough capacityin funeral homes and
in private cemeteries. But this too is only
temporary, because in thisvery same planning
document, officials also note that the island quote
“may not be able toaccommodate a large influx
of decedents requiring burial,"something this pandemic
has unfortunately spurred.So, the city might
need to consider draftinga backup plan
for its backup plan. Imam Latif says his
community already has. Our funeral prayer also has
a version of it thatcan be prayed without
the body being present,and where people are able to perform
that on their own in their hometo kind of help them in
their own healing process,so to speak, and let
them be there. Leaving some to resort
to their only option:livestreaming burials.they will livestream so
that people can at leastwitness the prayer being done,
see the burial taking place,and be a part of it as
best as they canin the given circumstances.No one knows what the
long-term impact of thesechanges might be after
the pandemic passes.Just like 9/11 changed
everything about how we handle security in New York
City and in the world,in some positive ways and
in some that were excessive and,in my opinion, unwarranted,
this crisis is also going to changeI think everything about how
we deal with health care,how we prepare for pandemics
and, ultimately, also howwe prepare to handle
our dead in such cases.Will it unite humanity
or deepen the divide?We had members of our community
who said that they weregetting word from various
funeral agencies that it'd be $10,000 to bury someone. And to jump from $1,500,
$2,000 to 5 times that amountwhen many people are struggling,it creates unnecessary burden. But coronavirus has definitely
sparked a larger conversationabout how society
conceptualizes death.This pandemic has revealed
so much, right? You have immense beauty
and goodness from these doctors and first
responders who are made of whatever they're made of
that they're getting up every day,and despite the amount of illness
and death that they're absorbingand their sheer exhaustion,
they're still goingto help people and still support
people in their time of need.But then you have a lot of
revelations of real greed andreal selfishness and ugliness,
and people are hoarding andthey're raising prices to
take advantage of thingsin their own self-interest
and egocentricity. This is an incredibly
tough situationand happening with
just a brutaland relentless death rate.And though we do appear
to finally bemoving in the right direction,
we need to understandthat we're still in a really
difficult place today.

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