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"A backlog of funerals" in coronavirus' epicenter

John Golden doesn't have much time to talk these days. The Queens funeral director has been working overtime in what is so far the worst-hit borough in New York City, the current epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

"I've never seen anything like this in 50 years in the business. I've got to go, I'm sorry," Golden said.

In the few minutes before, he briefly described life in the death industry.

"The cemeteries and crematories have backed up and it's causing a backlog of funerals," said Golden, the owner of Martin A. Gleason Funeral Home, which has three locations, all in Queens. "The crematories don't allow anybody in, but if the cemetery allows it mourners can meet us there and you know, have like a graveside service, but it's limited."

New York City's outer boroughs — Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx — have absorbed the heaviest toll from coronavirus, approximately 83% of the city's deaths: 1,873 out of the 2,256  deaths in New York City as of Saturday, and 80% of its total known cases: 48,679 of the city's 60,850.

Healthcare workers wheel bodies deceased people from Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York
Healthcare workers wheel the bodies of deceased people from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center during the coronavirus outbreak in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, on April 2, 2020. Reuters

"A lot of the COVID cases are more or less direct burials or direct cremation. But we do our best to serve the families," Golden said. There's often no opportunity to see loved ones in their caskets or to accompany their bodies before cremation.

Like so many involved in handling bodies, both living and dead, ravaged by coronavirus, funeral directors are confronting a severe shortage of personal protective equipment.

"We're running short on masks and we could use more. The New York State Funeral Directors Association is looking into getting us some," Golden says, but there are no guarantees.

Richard Sullivan, the Association's president, said funeral directors are sometimes the last in line for protective gear, even though they're at risk.

"The embalmed, prepared human remains poses no threat to the general public, but the unembalmed remains do because as you're transferring someone from their hospital bed or from their private bed in their home, there can be the evacuation of respiratory microbes through the nose or the mouth," Sullivan said. "I understand the first responders in the medical profession come first, but we're on the, if I can use the phrase, the food chain also, and it's not trickling down to the funeral directors."

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Sullivan said even his funeral home in Cornwall-on-Hudson, about 80 miles north of Manhattan, is on waiting lists to get such basic supplies as hand sanitizer.

The flow of sanitizer, masks and other protective equipment to funeral directors has slowed in seeming inverse proportion to the rush of bodies. He's fielded pleas from New York City colleagues hoping to manage the influx of bodies by hiring what he called "freelance funeral directors" — people working at upstate funeral homes who have the time, or vacation days available, to do extra paid work in the city. He said it's a better option than turning families away.

"To turn around and to just not offer anything, the opportunity to say goodbye, you know, that's not right," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the nature of funerals have changed. There are staggered services, with a few people allowed in to the funeral home at a time, and virtual memorials, where people join together using FaceTime, Zoom or other video chat apps. 

"It's a different business model, but it's working in a sense that it's allowing families to grieve and to say goodbye to their loved ones," Sullivan said.

John D'Arienzo, the owner of D'Arienzo Funeral Home in Brooklyn, said Friday he hadn't slept in 48 hours. He had just 90 seconds available to describe his situation.

"This is catastrophic what's going on," he said. "I still have families that had deaths two days ago that I haven't had a chance to sit with. I have four funerals tomorrow. I have four funerals on Monday."

Concern for the families of the deceased was echoed by funeral director after funeral director. 

Gabrielle Correa, of the Farenga Brothers Funeral Home in the Bronx, said just as families have had to adjust their expectations of what a funeral should be, so too, have the funeral directors.

"Unfortunately the people that are passing away cannot even have a proper funeral, and that's definitely one thing that really bothers us as a whole, as a funeral home," Correa said. "For us to see these families grieving and they can't, 100% grieve properly is definitely difficult for us."

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