On a sun-drenched morning last month, a dozen mourners gathered from a fresh grave dug to bury four people who were thrown into limbo while New York City struggled with COVID-19.
Each was among hundreds of people whose bodies were lost in a temporary morgue that was created at the height of the city’s coronavirus crisis last year and where about 200 bodies remain, not all victims of viruses.
The temporary morgue perched on a pillar in an industrial part of Brooklyn is out of sight and mind for many people as the city celebrates its pandemic progress by abandoning restrictions and even firing fireworks. But the facility – which the city plans to close by the end of the summer – is a reminder of the virus’s loss, shock and extravagant choices inflicted on one of its deadliest U.S. locations.
James Brown, George Davis, Diane Quince and Charles Varga died of various causes between three and nine months before their burial in mid-June at Staten Island’s Ocean View Cemetery. Officers found no more relatives.
“But we know they lived, not without friendship, but with friends and family,” said Edwina Frances Martin, public administrator of the Staten Island estate to a handful of Brown friends and volunteers attending such funerals. “Because now they’re all part of our family. And we’re part of theirs.”
Some New Yorkers are in trouble as hundreds of others at the morgue are still waiting to be rested.
“Well these bodies are waiting – why?” asks Kiki Valentine, Brooklyn minister and funeral services assistant. She wrote to officials looking for an explanation and proposing steps she thinks could help, such as publishing public obituaries for the dead.
Only virus deaths have peaked above 800 a day across the city at one point in April 2020 – deaths from all causes are generally on average around 150 – and overcrowded funerals, cemeteries and hospital morgues. A temporary morgue was established that month to give families more time to organize funerals after the city shortened its calendar to hold remains before burying them in a public cemetery on Hart Island. There is no rule as to how long the bodies can stay in the temporary installation.
“There was too much death for the system to deal with,” recalls Amy Koplow, executive director of the Jewish Association of Free Burial, which interests some Jews who were at the temporary morgue.
“We feel really good that we are able to bury these people who have been buried and in limbo for so long,” he said.
However, Koplow feels that the forensic doctor’s office has done its best in a whirlwind. Many cases require a considerable search of relatives, a will or other indications of the deceased’s wishes, he said.
As the forensic doctor’s office prepares to close the temporary facility, the agency has stopped taking the dead people here, and investigators are working to contact the relatives and determine the final arrangements for the nearly 200 that remained, spokesman Mark Desire said via e-mail last week.
This dropped from 750 when the agency informed City Council members in early May, saying investigators had found relatives in most cases but were awaiting their decisions or had stopped working. hear from them.
The desire did not answer questions about where the bodies removed from the facility were taken, because the temporary morgue remained in use after the 2020 source dropped or how many of the dead were victims of viruses.
Brooklyn neighborhood president and hopeful Mayor Eric Adams has asked the Mayor to ensure that all efforts are made to reach the relatives of the deceased and help with government-paid funeral reimbursement requests, he said. said spokesman Ryan Lynch. (The city can provide up to $ 1,700, and a specific federal program for COVID-19 deaths allows up to $ 9,000. Burial on Hart Island is free.)
Meanwhile, Rabbi Queen Sandler-Phillips – who has organized volunteers to keep home the vigils for the dead around the world, especially those who are unclaimed and unnamed – regularly ventures to a discreet location near the temporary morgue. She goes to testify “of what is not seen, and of what is not called,” she says.
The pain surrounding the creation and continued use of the structure “highlights the difficulties of how we honor the dead,” he says.
The group at Ocean View Cemetery on June 17 was here to testify as well.
“We don’t want them to just go to their last resting place,” said Diane Kramer, a volunteer with a charity called the Foundation for Dignity. He works with Martin’s office, which organized the burial in the private cemetery.
Little information could be confirmed about Davis, who was 76, and Quince, 62.
Varga, 81, had a background in information science and business consulting, spoke four languages and has worked in recent years on a documentary film about abandonment, according to his social media profiles. .
She was in poor health, said friend Sandra Andrews, who said she was estranged from her parents but became a father figure for her after meeting him in 2010. She said she tried to find out. what happened to him after he was denied in February but learned of his death on February 2 only from The Associated Press.
“I haven’t had a chance to say goodbye properly,” he said by email.
Brown, 51, was a taxi driver and shipper on and off for 30 years, according to collaborator Desereeanne Fisher and chief Anton Kumar.
They say Brown was hardworking and sometimes even slept in the office, where colleagues still had their beloved bowling ball.
He told friends he had been disconnected from his family since childhood, but he was “a friend to everyone,” Fisher said, wiping away the tears. “Everything you wanted, it hurt for you.”
Brown fell and hit his head in a convention store last March 2 and was found dead in his van a few minutes later, killed by a blood clot, Fisher said. She said her colleagues wanted to organize and attend a funeral, but they had encountered obstacles because they were not relatives.
“There has been no closure” since his death, he said, relieved to learn that he had finally been buried in a shady plot, with a plaque dedicated to him by his friends.
“He couldn’t have family,” he said, “but he had a lot of people who loved him.”