New York's women morticians struggle to give proper burials and fulfill last wishes as bodies continue piling up
The coronavirus pandemic is raging on, with global confirmed cases inching closer and closer to the three-million mark now and the total number of fatalities is just shy of 200,000.
The US continues to be at the top of the charts as the worst affected country with 842,624 confirmed cases and 46,785 fatalities, as of April 23 (according to the John Hopkins University dashboard). New York has become the epicenter of the outbreak with a drastic increase in cases concentrated. With so many deaths, the growing concern now is the shortage of burial spots to put the deceased to rest.
Funeral homes, crematories and morgues are overflowing with bodies and struggling to deal with the increasing number of fatalities. Families that have lost their loved ones to the disease are distressed because they are unable to bid them adieu with a proper burial.
While earlier people were lamenting over gut-wrenching photographs of military vans carrying bodies of the dead, now photos from hospitals hallways and funeral homes in Brooklyn have surfaced, and the condition is deplorable to say the least.
“I know funeral homes are lining up to pick up bodies. I know they are risking themselves for eight hours a day, being in those trucks. And the crematoriums are backed up,” said mortician Lauren Bowser, who handles welfare cases for Middlesex County, MA to New York Post. Crematoriums are jam-packed and Bowser recalls that she was called to tend to a deceased person and couldn't find a crematory until May 11. “We’re overloaded. It’s unprecedented and unanticipated," she added.
Morticians have to wear protective gear while picking up and tending to corpses. Bowser described the shattering scenes from inside a refrigerated trailer, a make-shift morgue outside the Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, NJ to NYP. “There are racks of people and the racks are taller than you are. And the staff is doing the best they can,” says Bowser.
In New York City, in the pandemic-stricken neighborhood of Harlem, a band of women has been tirelessly working to ensure that the dead receive a respectable burial. A report by Reuters brings the spotlight to four woman morticians — Lily Sage Weinrieb, Alisha Narvaez, Jenny Adames, and Nicole Warring — who have been taking care of Harlem's dead as the pandemic continues to claim lives by the thousands.
New York health officials began burying the dead in a mass grave on Hart Island during one of the state's worst week of deaths. The four women who work at the International Funeral and Cremation Service, however, began turning bodies away because they felt like they were failing. According to them, a person should be able to have their desires fulfilled in death, if not when alive.
“That’s our thing,” Weinrieb told Reuters. “You want six limos and you want them painted pink? Yes. Now, we’re like: you want a cremation? I’m sorry, no. You want a burial and you already have a plot and everything? Sorry, no. We don’t have any room.”
“We’re being told that we’re heroes for being on the front lines of this but I feel like I’m failing families every day," she added.
Even though the fear of getting infected and dying overpowers their rational thought from time to time, they haven't ceased their work. Some of these women have sent their own children to live with relatives, out of fear of spreading the virus to them after working with infected corpses. It is very likely that their duties will persist for a while longer, simply because cities like New York never imagined having to deal with and dispose of so many dead bodies.
“You see tons of body bags and tons of people and they’re labeled COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19. It’s like a horror show," said Warring. “It’s traumatizing for everyone. No mortuary school can prepare you for what we’re seeing now.”
Despite having a high density in population, New York has only four crematoriums. Pandemic deaths are a harrowing sight. Even the makeshift refrigerator trailers outside of hospitals don't have enough shelves to accommodate the increasing number of corpses. The bodies sometimes have to be stacked, one above another, and on the floors. Hospitals have even reduced the minimum number of days it will keep a body. They have had to turn away bodies, and it has been painful and emotionally exhausting to do so.
“I’m not the emotional type to tell you the truth,” said Adames. “I don’t want to sound heartless but it’s a job. It’s what I do.”
Covid-19 patients die without the comfort of their families surrounding them because the latter are asked to be quarantined. Yet, these women try to find ways for the families to say their last goodbyes. The funeral home in Harlem is one of the select few that permit viewing of the dead. However, because of the lockdown and social distancing guidelines, only 10 people at a time can gather to pay respects. Each viewing lasts an hour, and for bigger families, the women offer a four-hour viewing provided they bring their own gloves and masks.
While front liners are out there battling the infection, morticians and coroners turn out to be the other unsung heroes who are actively rendering their services to provide the deceased a proper burial and their families, a form of consolation during this devastating crisis.