World

Unclaimed remains of coronavirus victims in New York City being buried in potter's field

As New York City deals with a mounting coronavirus death toll and dwindling morgue space, the city has shortened the amount of time it will hold unclaimed remains before they are buried in the city's public cemetery.

Burial operations have increased to 5 days a week, with around 24 burials each day

Workers bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island on Thursday in the Bronx borough of New York City. On Thursday, the city medical examiner confirmed that the city has shortened the amount of time it will hold on to remains to 14 days from 30 days before they will be transferred for temporary interment at a city cemetery. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

As New York City deals with a mounting coronavirus death toll and dwindling morgue space, the city has shortened the amount of time it will hold unclaimed remains before they are buried in the city's public cemetery.

Under the new policy, the medical examiner's office will keep bodies in storage for just 14 days before they're buried in the city's potter's field on Hart Island.

Normally, about 25 bodies a week are interred on the island, mostly for people whose families can't afford a funeral or who go unclaimed by relatives.

In recent days, though, burial operations have increased from one day a week to five days a week, with around 24 burials each day, said Department of Correction spokesperson Jason Kersten.

Aerial images taken Thursday by The Associated Press captured workers digging graves on the island, a one-mile, limited-access strip off the Bronx that's the final resting place for more than a million mostly indigent New Yorkers.

About 40 caskets were lined up for burial on the island on Thursday, and two fresh trenches have been dug in recent days.

As of Friday morning, there have been more than 87,000 confirmed cases in New York City, with 5,150 deaths in the city. 

WATCH | Drone footage shows bodies in caskets being buried on Hart Island:

New York City is burying more of its dead in a potter's field on Hart Island amid a surge in deaths due to the coronavirus. 3:24

Prisoners no longer digging graves

Before burial, the dead are wrapped in body bags and placed inside pine caskets. The deceased's name is scrawled in large letters on each casket, which helps should a body need to be disinterred later. They are buried in long narrow trenches excavated by digging machines.

"They added two new trenches in case we need them," Kersten said. To help with the surge, and amid an outbreak of the COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus at the city's main jail, contract labourers have been hired, he said. Previously, prisoners had been used to dig the island's graves.

For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic.- Jason Kersten, Department of Correction spokesperson

"For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic," Kersten said.

A barge could be seen arriving at the island on Thursday morning with a refrigerated truck aboard containing about two dozen bodies.

Earlier in the week, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said that officials had explored the possibility of temporary burials on Hart Island, a strip of land in Long Island Sound that has long served as the city’s potter’s field. (The Associated Press)

The department referred questions about causes of death to the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokesperson for the examiner, said it would take time to collate individual causes of death from the office's records, but it was probable some of the recent burials include those felled by the coronavirus.

The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city's morgue capacity, a point that has not yet been reached, Kersten and Worthy-Davis said.

"We're all hoping it's not coming to this," Kersten said. "At the same time, we're prepared if it does."

'They will not stay there'

OCME can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings, and has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks that it can dispatch around the city to hospitals, which typically have only small morgues, Worthy-Davis said.

WATCH | How the pandemic is testing the strength of New York City and its residents:

New York City’s streets are largely empty as it continues to grapple with record death tolls from COVID-19. CBC’s Susan Ormiston looks at how the pandemic is testing the strength of the city and its residents. 2:54

Another island to the south of Hart, Randall's Island in the East River, is being used as a parking depot for dozens of empty refrigerated trucks between deployments outside city hospitals.

On Thursday, two trucks containing bodies that had been parked outside a hospital were temporarily moved back to the island depot, in a stadium parking lot, to make way for a delivery of oxygen and other supplies at the hospital.

"They will not stay there," Avery Cohen, a city hall spokesperson, wrote in an email.

City health officials could be seen Thursday transferring bodies from the two trucks into three hearses dispatched by funeral homes.

Medical workers remove a body from a refrigerated truck outside Brooklyn Hospital on March 31. Due to the surge in deaths caused by COVID-19, New York City hospitals are using refrigerated trucks as make shift morgues. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

With files from Reuters

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now