coronavirus

‘Surreal’: New York funeral homes struggle as virus deaths surge

Coronavirus

Pat Marmo, owner of Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home, is interviewed in his body holding facility, hoping for assistance in handling the overflow of clients stemming from COVID-19 deaths, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Like many funeral homes in New York and around the globe, Marmo’s business is in crisis. “This is a state of emergency,” he said. “We need help.” (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — Pat Marmo walked among 20 or so deceased in the basement of his Brooklyn funeral home, his protective mask pulled down so his pleas could be heard.

“Every person there, they’re not a body,” he said. “They’re a father, they’re a mother, they’re a grandmother. They’re not bodies. They’re people.”

Like many funeral homes in New York and around the globe, Marmo’s business is in crisis as he tries to meet surging demand amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 2,200 people in New York City alone. His two cellphones and the office line are ringing constantly. He’s apologizing to families at the start of every conversation for being unusually terse, and begging them to insist hospitals hold their dead loved ones as long as possible.

His company is equipped to handle 40 to 60 cases at a time, no problem. On Thursday morning, it was taking care of 185.

“This is a state of emergency,” he said. “We need help.”

Funeral directors are being squeezed on one side by inundated hospitals trying to offload bodies, and on the other by the fact that cemeteries and crematoriums are booked for a week at least, sometimes two.

Marmo let The Associated Press into his Daniel J. Schaefer funeral home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Thursday to show how dire the situation has become.

He has about 20 embalmed bodies stored on gurneys and stacked on shelves in the basement and another dozen in his secondary chapel room, both chilled by air conditioners.

He estimated that more than 60% had died of the new coronavirus. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.

“It’s surreal,” he said.

Hospitals in New York have been using refrigerated trucks to store the dead, and Marmo is trying to find his own. One company quoted him a price of $6,000 per month, and others are refusing outright because they don’t want their equipment used for bodies.

Even if he gets a truck, he has nowhere obvious to put it. He’s wondering if the police station across the street might let him use its driveway.

He’s also hoping the Environmental Protection Agency will lift regulations that limit the hours crematoriums can operate. That would ease some of the backlog.

“I need somebody to help me,” he said. “Maybe if they send me refrigeration, or guide me in a way that I could set up a refrigerated trailer that I could keep, and I could supervise.”

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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