The bodies of hundreds of New Yorkers are still sitting in a refrigerated morgue on the Brooklyn waterfront more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Big Apple.
The remains of about 750 people are in long-term storage in the specially designed disaster morgue that opened in April, a medical official told a City Council committee meeting on Wednesday.
The facility was set up to give families extra time, but the arrangement was always intended to be temporary, said Dina Maniotis, executive deputy commissioner of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.
“In the very near future, we will begin to notify all the families that we’ve been working with that we are now going to ramp our operations down slowly, give them the time that they need, and we’ll keep the operation going as they need it,” Maniotis told the City Council’s Committee on Health.
Families of many of the dead still in storage have requested that the city bury their remains on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field. The families of others have fallen out of contact with the city, Maniotis said.
City Councilman Mark Gjonaj asked why so many were still in storage when the families had already requested burial on Hart.
“Why are we delaying that any longer than we have to?” Gjonaj (D-Bronx) said.
He said “storage” was a terrible word to use when discussing the dead, but said the city had capacity elsewhere.
The city took the unprecedented step of putting the bodies in cold storage as morgues, hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed in the early days of the pandemic in the region. Bodies were put in packed refrigerated trucks.
An emergency morgue was set up on the 39th Street Pier in the Sunset Park neighborhood and in 2020 it was storing more than 1,300 bodies at a time, victims of the coronavirus and other deceased.
Hart Island in the Long Island Sound, the nation’s largest public cemetery, is the final resting place of many of the city’s unclaimed dead. There are more than 1 million people buried there, officials said at the committee meeting.
The island saw a spike in burials last year, with 2,666 laid to rest there in 2020 there while there are usually about 1,200 annually, Maniotis said. There have been 504 burials so far this year, she added.
The city is in the process of transferring jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
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