New York City weighs temporary burials as coronavirus deaths overwhelm mortuary system

Medical workers remove a body from a refrigerated truck outside of the Brooklyn Hospital on March 31, 2020 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

New York City is preparing to bury dead COVID-19 patients in temporary plots on public land until the city’s morgues and cemeteries can catch up to the rapidly rising coronavirus death toll, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

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

Hart Island is located in the northeast Bronx of New York City. More than 1 million people are buried on the island, according to the city’s website. The city says it is New York City’s public cemetery and the Department of Correction has managed burials on the island for the past 150 years. Many of those buried on the island remain anonymous with unmarked graves.

Representatives from the NYC Department of Correction were not immediately available to comment.

“We’re going to try and treat every family with dignity, respect, religious needs of those who are devout and the focus right now is to try to get through this crisis and obviously also put all of our energy and resources into saving those we can save,” de Blasio said. “That’s how we’re going to go about it. We’ll have the capacity for temporary burials. That’s all I’m going to say.”

De Blasio’s comments come after the chair of New York City Council’s health committee Mark Levine said on social media that the city’s system for managing the deceased is being “pushed to the limit.” He added that morgues and funeral homes across the city are overwhelmed.

The city will soon need to use “temporary interment” where the dead are buried in trenches of 10 caskets in a line in public parks, he said on Twitter. “It will be done in a dignified, orderly–and temporary–manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take,” he said.

Representatives from the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were not immediately available to comment.

The city has received federal assistance to handle the number of the deceased from the coronavirus epidemic in New York. Last week, the city said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was sending 85 refrigerated trucks to New York City to serve as temporary mortuaries.

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