Brooklyn cemeteries struggle to keep up amid surge in COVID-19 deaths

Green-Wood Cemetery
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Brooklyn’s cemeteries are grappling with the substantial increase in deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and struggling to accommodate the influx of burials and cremations.

“Cremations have more than doubled, and it just reached the point where we had to put a cap on how many bodies we receive every day,” said Eric Barna, the vice president of operations of Green-Wood Cemetery.

The landmark Fifth Avenue cemetery has limited the amount of cremations to around 20 per day due to their limited space capacity for the deceased remains, he said. 

Likewise, burials have gone up significantly in recent days, with 15 interments on Thursday, compared to their usual two or three per day, said Barna. 

The death count for Brooklynites due to the novel coronavirus tallied at 1,220 people as of April 9 out of 4,426 citywide, and Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the same day that the state would bring in additional funeral directors to deal with the number of New Yorkers that have passed.

With the climbing death count and increasing infection rates, Catholic cemeteries and graveyards have also taken additional safety measures, according to John Quaglione, a spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which manages the Holy Cross Cemetery in East Flatbush along with smaller parish cemeteries in the borough and three cemeteries in neighboring Queens.

The religious organization is limiting the number of attendants at graveside ceremonies to 10 people, in accordance with a statewide order — but Quaglione noted that this has left larger families with hard choices, unimaginable just weeks ago.

“If you’re the 11th person in the family, or if it’s just a friend of yours, or a neighbor, you can’t go,” he said. “It becomes a question of who goes to a ceremony and those are all tough personal and family decisions we have to make until this curve is flattened.”

As hospitals ban visits to patients to stem the outbreak of COVID-19, funerals offer a last chance to be with one’s loved ones during these difficult times, Quaglione said.

“It’s really the opportunity — the only opportunity — to say goodbye to a loved one,” he said.

For the city’s Jewish cemeteries, the New York Board of Rabbis advised that rabbis host burial rites and funeral services via video conference, while limiting funeral attendance to four mourners, the Queens Eagle reported.

Delays due to the health crisis have also made it difficult to follow Jewish customs of burial within 24 hours, Board of Rabbis Vice President Joseph Potasnik told that paper.

Green-Wood Cemetery has yet to limit the number of people at graveside ceremonies, but is working with families to adhere to social distancing guidelines, but allows for no more than 10 people at indoor ceremonies, Barna said.

The cemetery has also cut its staff in half, working on rotation to allow them to better practice social distancing and give them a break after working long hours. One of their mechanics contracted the respiratory illness from his son, according to Barna, who praised employees dealing with these exceptional circumstances.

“All our workers have been fantastic. They knew based on the role the cemetery provides, we couldn’t run and hide from this thing,” he said. We’re not first responders but we’re in that chain and we have to deal with that business.”