New York hires laborers for mass burials

Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island in the Bronx on Thursday.

New York City officials have hired contract laborers to bury the dead in its potter’s field on Hart Island as the city’s daily death rate from the coronavirus epidemic has reached grim new records in each of the last three days.
The city has since the 19th century used Hart Island to bury New Yorkers with no known next of kin or whose family are unable to arrange a funeral.
Typically, 25 bodies are interred each week by low-paid jail inmates working on the island, which sits off the east shore of the city’s Bronx borough and is accessible only by boat.
That number began increasing in March as the new coronavirus spread rapidly, making New York the focus of the pandemic. They are now burying about two dozen bodies a day, five days a week, said Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the department of correction, which oversees the burials.
For burial on the island, the dead are wrapped in body bags and placed inside pine caskets. The deceased’s name is written in large letters on each casket, which helps should any body need to be disinterred later, and they are buried in long narrow trenches excavated by digging machines.
“They added two new trenches in case we need them,” Kersten said. To help with the surge, and amid an outbreak of the Covid-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus at the city’s main jail, contract laborers have been hired, he said.
“For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic,” Kersten said.
A barge could be seen arriving at the island on Thursday morning with a refrigerated truck aboard containing about two dozen bodies.
The department referred questions about causes of death to the city’s office of the chief medical examiner (OCME). Aja Worthy-Davis, an OCME spokeswoman, said it would take time to collate individual causes of death from the office’s records, but that it was probable some of the recent burials include those felled by the coronavirus.
The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city’s morgue capacity, a point that has not yet been reached, Kersten and Worthy-Davis said.
“We’re all hoping it’s not coming to this,” Kersten said. “At the same time, we’re prepared if it does.”
The OCME can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings, and also has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks it can dispatch around the city to hospitals that typically have only small morgues, Worthy-Davis said.
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