Cemetery races to keep up as New York virus deaths mount

Families are being kept away from their loved one’s gravesite at the cemetery
Rabbi Shmuel Plafker
Michael Tokar
APTOPIX Virus Outbreak Burying the Dead
Michael Tokar
Thomas Cortez
Thomas Cortez
Virus Outbreak Burying the Dead
Thomas Cortez
Rabbi Shmuel Plafker
Posted at 5:26 AM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-21 05:26:59-04

NEW YORK - As the pandemic’s death toll charges past 10,000 in New York City, funeral directors, gravediggers and others who tend to a body’s final chapter are sprinting to keep up.

In a marathon of grief at Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island, mounds of dirt are piling up as graves are opened, vans are constantly arriving with bodies aboard and a line of white signs is being pressed into the ground marking plots soon to be occupied.

Families are being kept away from their loved one’s gravesite at the cemetery, which caters to those with little or nothing.

Some of the few signs of life in this anguished city are coming from those tending to the dead.

Mount Richmond is run by the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which buries Jews who die with little or nothing. A century ago, it buried garment workers killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and those who fell to the Spanish flu. More recently, it was Holocaust survivors who fled Europe. And now, those dying of the coronavirus.

A stream of people trusted with preparing Mount Richmond’s dead for burial continues to arrive at the cemetery, carefully washing the bodies as Jewish law dictates, then placing them in a white shroud. The Torah calls for burial as soon as possible. These days, it’s more of a challenge than ever.

Companies that transport the dead to their final resting places are backed up, part of a chain reaction of hold-ups that includes overbooked funeral homes and cemeteries that are turning families away.

“The casket companies have no caskets,” says James Donofrio, a funeral director who handles Mount Richmond’s arrangements.

Hebrew Free Burial stocked up on caskets before the coronavirus unleashed its worst, just as they did with protective gear for workers, garments for the dead and other supplies. They think they have enough. Then again, they thought the mortuary cooler they ordered a month ago to fit an extra four bodies would be enough extra space. Now they have a refrigerated trailer big enough to hold 20.

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