As COVID-19 Ravages NYC, Victims' Families Are Struggling To Afford Proper Burials

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Burials take place on Hart Island on April 9, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York. Hart Island's p...
Burials take place on Hart Island on April 9, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York. Hart Island's potter's field has experienced an influx of burials during the Coronavirus pandemic. Andrew Theodorakis/Getty

The inability to see Grandma on a holiday. Canceled dream trips to Disney World. A spring with no sports combined with a sudden adventure in homeschooling. Limited groceries and a backlog of delivery time slots.

The list of ways in which our daily lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to grow. Things we never could have imagined happening are happening. Every day.

And for some, the unexpected impact is the most tragic, the most heartbreaking, as families are losing loved ones—by the thousands—and cannot afford to bury the dead. Instead, we are seeing images of mass graves—plain, roughly made wood coffins placed into the ground, side by side, with no funeral or proper goodbye for the deceased.

NYC mayor Bill De Blasio has explained that Hart Island, where these images are coming from, has been used as a burial site for the unclaimed dead for generations. However, even on this desolate island off the Bronx coast, COVID-19 has changed everything. Many of the recent surge in Hart Island burials, recently captured on drone footage, are likely related to COVID-19, given the sheer number of deaths in the city from the virus. In fact, Jason Kersten, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Correction, which oversees the burials, reports that “burials on the island have increased five-fold and that two new trenches have been added.”

And on April 10, De Blasio tweeted out this sentiment:

Like burials on Hart Island, the ability to afford a funeral or burial of any kind is also not a new problem, but rather is a luxury many Americans already went without. However, now that the coronavirus has taken over 10,000 lives from NYC alone, in a matter of weeks, we’re seeing the impact of bodies upon bodies who are not claimed or not properly buried because so many don’t have the means to do so.

As COVID-19 has ravaged the world, New York City quickly became the worst-hit area in our country—the epicenter of the U.S.’s cases. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering how closely New Yorkers live and work to each other, how many rely on public transportation, and how densely populated this area is. But there’s another reason why the coronavirus is hitting NYC so hard—both in the number of lives it has taken, and how economically devastating it is.

Ferry carrying Special Operation Medical Examiner refrigerated truck move to Hart Island, where unclaimed bodies of COVID-19 victims were buried, in New York, United States on April 16, 2020. Anadolu Agency/Getty

For example, when we talk about the hardest-hit parts of the NYC area, we aren’t necessarily referring to the affluent Upper East Side (although we know there are cases there). The parts of the city suffering the most are boroughs like Queens, which so far has registered more than 31,000 cases of the coronavirus, according to data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This is more than any of the city’s other four boroughs.

This means neighborhoods like Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, all of which are in Queens, are being hit harder than the rest of America. Why? Why are certain areas feeling the impact more than others? Well, for these sections of Queens, for example, it has a lot to do with the jobs residents have. Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents this area of NYC, says his constituents are being disproportionately affected by the outbreak because most of them work in the hospitality or service industry.

“They’re the ones that are delivering our food while, you know, we’re safe inside. They’re the ones that are manning the cash registers and stocking the aisles in our supermarkets,” Moya says in an interview with NPR. “They’ve been thrown into being this kind of front line support that has been keeping the city alive as we go through this process.”

A large burial pit and abandoned buildings are seen on Hart Island where some of the COVID-19 victims are buried, in New York, the United States, April 11, 2020. Xinhua News Agency/Getty

Another factor that adversely affects certain cities and neighborhoods in the U.S. is a high concentration of undocumented immigrants. Moya’s district is comprised largely of the Latino community, who are going out into the world every day as essential workers, but many of whom are also without the immigration status required for burial assistance.

When you combine these factors—living paycheck to paycheck and receiving no income if you don’t go to work as well as missing proper citizenship papers—you end up with a large number of deceased COVID-19 victims with no burial plans. Because their families simply can’t.

These are the people ensuring the rest of us get food, the rest of us have our needs met, while we safely wait out this nightmare at home. We are relying on them more than ever, so it’s time to shut down the ignorant “well they should have come here legally” talk, and instead, finally educate ourselves about how many are trying to move up the channels to proper citizenship so they don’t get deported. But most of all, we can appreciate the essential workers out there, living and breathing in possibly contaminated air in order to deliver our food and keep our grocery shelves stocked.

Because for many of these residents, if they get sick and don’t make it, they’ll be left behind. For far too many New Yorkers on the frontlines of this pandemic, mothers and fathers and siblings and children cannot even properly mourn their loss or have closure.

And that is a devastating failure on America’s part.

Councilman Moya says we need to do better, and he’s calling on the city to expand its burial claims program and “bring some relief to families who will be able to afford to bury their loved ones, as opposed to us seeing the images of people in mass graves” on New York’s Hart Island.

“This is what you see in some war torn countries,” Moya said, “not what you’re accustomed to seeing in New York City.”

It sure feels like that for so many Americans—like we are at war. So many Americans, like these residents of NYC, are putting themselves out into the danger zone because it’s their job and they have no other choice, even though they know their lives are on the line. Even though they know they could die alone from this vicious illness.

The least we could do is ensure their families can retrieve their bodies, give them a proper burial, and have the chance to say goodbye.

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