NYC burials on Hart Island increase; coronavirus victims will soon be among them
A refrigerated NYC Medical Examiners Office truck about to be loaded on the Hart Island ferry on Thursday. The ferry runs to the island from City Island in the Bronx.
Coronavirus victims will haunt New York’s island of the dead as the city struggles to deal with the pandemic that has taken thousand of lives.
Hart Island, the city’s public cemetery on Long Island Sound, has seen a drastic increase in burials in recent weeks as at least 4,778 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus.
As coffins have stacked up — and as a ferry took a refrigerated truck to the island on Thursday, and workers in hazmat suits kept up their grim work of burying the city’s unknown — city officials wouldn’t attribute the increase in burials in the city’s longtime potter’s field to the coronavirus crisis.
No confirmed COVID-19 victims have been buried at the island as of Thursday, said Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mayor de Blasio. But that will soon change.
“We will likely be burying unclaimed COVID decedents there in the coming days, consistent with decades-long practice,” said Goldstein.
De Blasio has for days brushed off questions from reporters about how the city will handle the surge of bodies left in the pandemic’s wake, saying “deep and graphic discussion” on the issue isn’t fair to New Yorkers or families who are grieving.
Before the pandemic, a ferry carrying a truck filled with unclaimed dead left City Island in the Bronx every Thursday and headed to Hart Island for burials.
But since March 30, when New York City’s daily coronavirus death toll first exceeded 250, officials began to run the ferries five days a week and made plans to run them daily, according to the Department of Corrections, which operates the potter’s field.
The number of weekly burials at Hart Island began to increase on March 23 in order to clear out city morgues to make space for COVID-19 victims.
That week, 72 people were buried on the island. Before the pandemic began, no more than 25 bodies were interred at the island per week.
Burials increased even more on the week of March 30, going up to 125 in a five-day span. .
The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner holds bodies for up to 14 days. Bodies unclaimed by then could end up temporarily buried on Hart Island. Several of the city’s funeral homes are already at capacity and can only process a limited number of those killed by coronavirus.
Temporary burials of all COVID-19 victims will only occur at Hart Island and other public cemeteries when the city’s morgue and mortuary capacity is reached, said city officials.
Some of the additional ferries that carry bodies to Hart Island are being piloted by Staten Island Ferry operators who have been freed up since March 29, when the city slashed service on the cross-harbor route, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
Rikers Island inmates usually perform the burials on the island, and are paid $6 per hour for their labor. But private contractors have been brought in to bury bodies during the pandemic so prisoners can maintain social distancing, said DOC spokesman Jason Kersten.
Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project advocacy group, said the city has a good process for burying bodies at Hart Island. The city averages 1,100 burials there a year, and Hunt said there’s enough capacity to continue at that rate for 80 years.
That means there’s enough space on the island to temporarily bury the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are expected to die from coronavirus, Hunt said.
The city is required to keep the bodies on the island for at least 25 years, and disinters remains for more formal burials at the request of families free of charge.
“The city disinters [bodies] on the island all the time, but because of the numbers of coronavirus victims it’ll take a few years before everybody is sorted out and gets their funeral,” Hunt said.
Hart Island has served as a public cemetery since the Civil War. It’s the final resting place for more than 1 million people whose bodies went unclaimed, including thousands of New Yorkers who passed away during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Sources said city officials are also looking into performing temporary burials at Fort Totten, a 19th century cemetery in Queens that is now a park. But Goldstein strongly denied that Fort Totten is part of the city’s plan.