Days after state health authorities suspended the license of an overwhelmed Flatlands funeral home for storing dead bodies in U-Haul trucks, authorities said that the home’s practices, while appalling, are not criminal.
On April 29, police discovered that the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home on Utica Avenue had been storing dozens of bodies in U-Haul trucks, after an eyewitness called 911 and reported “blood coming from one of the trucks.” Officers rushed to the site, where they found funeral workers loading bodies from the U-Haul trucks into a mobile refrigerated truck.
Neighbors said they had been complaining that bodies were left haphazardly in open U-Haul trucks for weeks, omitting a strong odor.
On May 1, state health authorities suspended the Cleckley funeral home’s license, officials announced.
“Following an investigation by the State Department of Health, I issued an immediate suspension order to the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home in Brooklyn – whose actions were appalling, disrespectful to the families of the deceased, and completely unacceptable,” said state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker the day of the funeral home’s suspension.
But an extended investigation that wrapped up May 5 revealed that the home’s “disrespectful” practices were not criminal, officials said. Since April 29, conditions have “vastly improved” and the few bodies that were still in the home were properly accounted for, they added.
A man who identified himself as the brother of funeral director Andrew Cleckley, who would not give his first name, blamed crematoriums for the tremendous backlog of bodies being stored at the site, and claimed his brother’s name had been unjustifiably dragged through the mud.
“I would love for you all to retract a lot of what you were putting out there in the media without knowing the facts,” Cleckley told this paper. “They are saying there were hundreds of bodies – it’s fake news. Do your research and it will all come out — we are not concerned.”
Cleckley blamed the practice on the coronavirus pandemic that he said “took everybody by storm.”
“Nobody knew what to do – go ask the crematories why they don’t take the bodies when they are supposed to, causing us to pile up, go ask crematories those questions,” he said. “We are not in the business of keeping no one’s bodies – we don’t get off on that. We provide a service of bury or cremate. But then the crematories tell us they can’t take these bodies for weeks at a time, then we are stuck.”
Cleckley said the funeral business is a 24-hour operation because people die at all times of the day. He said the crematories simply don’t work like that.
“We are on a 24-hour schedule and then we have appointments and then the crematories cancel and then the bodies pile up,” he said. “That happened the whole month of April.”
The funeral directors asked the city for help, but “they show up when it’s too late,” Cleckley added.
“That always happens, they run down here like they are saving something when they should’ve been helping all along,” he said. “Now we got cops and sheriffs like it’s a crime scene, but there’s no crime, nobody getting arrested.”
Zucker expressed sympathy for funeral homes struggling to keep up with the COVID-19 crisis, but said that businesses are still required to adhere to basic sanitary standards — which have already been relaxed as a result of the pandemic.
“We understand the burden funeral homes are facing during this unprecedented time,” the health commissioner said. “That’s why the state previously issued an order allowing out of state funeral home directors to assist during this crisis and took steps to ease administrative hurdles.”
As sheriffs deputies packed up at the end of the investigation on May 5, another body could be seen wheeled past the front door, and a family member of a COVID-19 victim stood outside the funeral home wondering what will happen to the body of his brother.
Ronald Blime, 49, said his older brother François Blime, 68, died last week from COVID-19. His brother, a father of seven children and grandfather to eight, was not feeling seriously ill until April 23, when he went to the hospital with breathing issues. He died 20 minutes later from complications of coronavirus, Blime said.
“My brother is in there and I just want to know that we will be able to bury him on Tuesday (May 12),” he gasped. “The funeral is coming up and I don’t know where the body is. They say they still have him, but I don’t know how long they are going to take.”
Blime, like many shocked residents, watched as staffers unloaded bodies from U-Haul trucks last week.
“I was shocked too, they were saying there were over 50 bodies in a truck, even 100. That situation is really bad and my family is worried,” he said.
This story first appeared on AMNY.com.