Retiring After 23 Years, NYC’s Twin Morticians Want to Focus on Life
The Morgan brothers found purpose in caring for New York City’s dead — from Sept. 11 through COVID-19 — and in giving back to their Queens community.
Marvin and Melvin Morgan have spent more than 20 years working one of the hardest jobs in New York.
The 69-year-old brothers have both been city morticians for more than 20 years, with Marvin starting in the summer of 1999 and his brother coming on 2 years later. They’ve cared for the dead from all walks of life, and through some of the city’s worst disasters.
In a few months they’ll both be retired, when they said they’ll focus full-time on caring for the living.
“We had our fair share with the dead,” Marvin Morgan told THE CITY. “We’re back to the living now that we’re retired.”
The identical twins, who live near LeFrak City, Queens, said they were drawn to the work as morgue technicians as children, sparked by a visit to their great-grandmother’s grave in North Carolina.
A cousin pointed them to the general area of where she was buried, but they couldn’t find her plot among overgrown fields and unkempt grass.
“In the 1960s, there were a lot of African-Americans who had unmarked graves, that’s how it was, it was very disturbing,” Melvin told THE CITY. The experience stayed with them, and the brothers dreamt of opening up their own funeral business, where they would serve all nationalities regardless of how much money they had.
While they never had the opportunity to open their own firm, they eventually found their way into the work as city morgue technicians, they said.
Marvin worked for the Department of Finance before joining the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), and Melvin first started doing patient transport for NYC Health + Hospitals before he later also became a city morgue technician at Elmhurst Hospital.
Although they were both morgue technicians, Marvin — who retired last year — had the tougher job, his brother said. Since the OCME covers the entire city, he’s been on scene for some of its biggest tragedies, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, after which he spent months preparing remains in the hope they could be identified. He also worked on the crash of Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, Queens, on Nov. 12 of that year, and the Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003.
Marvin remembers his first day on the job with the medical examiner, at the scene of a badly decomposed body in Queens. The experience was so revolting he almost quit right then and there, he said, after he was told to clean up and then move the body. But he stuck with it.
“I dealt with jumpers, floaters, hangers, fire victims, gunshot victims, stab victims, exhumed victims, suicide victims, house calls, hospital calls,” Marvin recollected. He’s handled high-profile deaths, too, including Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in a Manhattan detention facility.
He and his colleagues often found themselves in chaotic and stressful scenes. There were grieving relatives who turned hostile, or sometimes even gang members who didn’t want a body removed, he said. The events they witnessed on the job even shocked the work-issued psychiatrists who sometimes came to speak with them, Marvin said.
“They stopped coming, they couldn’t take the stories,” he told THE CITY. “They were saying — how can y’all deal with this.”
But what drove him each day was a belief that every person deserves dignity in death.
“We show our kindness, our care, that’s our job — and we’re very, very careful with the body,” he said.
Cheering a Lack of Work
Then there were the jobs that never happened.
Marvin and fellow morgue technicians were lined up along the Hudson River on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009.
They’d scrambled there after US Airways Flight 1549 landed on the river soon after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. What was quickly dubbed “Miracle on the Hudson” by then-Gov. David Paterson became the morgue technician’s miracle, too — a big scene where they weren’t needed.
“That was one of the best things in our life, we said, Thank you Lord, for saving their lives and thank you for the work that we don’t have to go through,” he said. “That was a really happy day for us — we jumped for joy.”
While caring for the dead has guided the Morgan brothers through their work, they’ve not been immune to the grief and sadness that comes with the job.
During the thick of COVID, Marvin regularly went into nursing homes and private homes to pick up bodies of those who died. Usually by himself.
“No one would go in — not the police officers or the investigators,” he said, adding that he did not fear getting sick.
“Once you work for a while in the morgue, you understand that we don’t fear diseases.”
His brother Melvin Morgan, who is planning to retire later this spring, found himself in one of the city’s early epicenters during COVID and slept for weeks on a cot in the basement of Elmhurst Hospital, working double shifts.
Unlike his brother Marvin, he said he was afraid.
COVID claimed the lives of nine of his colleagues at the hospital, including Priscilla Carrow. She was months away from retirement and was very active in the local community, like the Morgan brothers have been. A street near LeFrak City has been renamed in her honor.
“That was my girl, her death hurt me a great deal,” he said. But: “We just had to keep it moving.”
‘The Forgotten Soldiers’
Both brothers spoke of the hard work they and other city morgue technicians do, but said the profession often isn’t respected by city government leaders. The Morgans were integral in getting city morgue technicians included in a state-run bonus program for health care workers during the pandemic.
“With the job we do, we are the forgotten soldiers. And it’s a very stressful job, it’s depressing at times,” Melvin said.
Being at Elmhurst Hospital during the virus’s peak was “very disturbing,” he said, and unlike anything he’d ever experienced. The hospital offered therapy for employees, which he said was helpful.
“But it’s still there,” he said of the trauma. “And it’ll never go.”
Helen Arteaga Landaverde first met the Morgan brothers soon after she and her family arrived in Corona from Ecuador. They encouraged her to join Queens Community Board 4 when she was around 18 years old. Her father died when she was young, and they stepped in as protective older brothers.
“They’re two people who empower their community,” Landaverde told THE CITY.
She’s now the president and CEO of Elmhurst Hospital. About the role, Melvin told her it “is going to be the hardest job you’ll ever have and you’re going to love it.”
In Landaverde’s two years in charge of the hospital, she’s seen the way that Melvin advocates for his colleagues as a union leader.
“He’s definitely a hero,” she said. “He doesn’t see death as the end, and whoever landed with Morgan at this stage of their lives was treated with so much respect and honor, that that’s what you want for your loved one.”
Life After Death
When they weren’t at work, the Morgan brothers devoted most of their time to their Queens community, hosting weekly voter registration drives at the Silver Spoon Diner on Junction Boulevard and campaigning for elected officials. They’ve served as Democratic district leaders and as members of Community Board 4, as well as with local tenant groups.
Their passion has been with making sure the kids growing up in and around LeFrak City have enough to do. They launched youth programs in the 1980s, holding basketball and baseball camps and clinics that saw future NBA stars Kenny Smith and Kenny Anderson play. They worked with Victor Santiago, Jr. — better known as the rapper and podcast host Noreaga, or N.O.R.E. — who signed up for their sports teams and leagues as a kid, they said.
They’ve also organized health fairs, turkey giveaways around Thanksgiving, and thrown block parties.
But their ultimate goal is to make sure a youth center is built in their community, which they and other people have tried to get done for years.
“We’ve been trying to get a youth center here for the longest, so I can get these kids off the streets,” Marvin said.
Once that’s built, they say they may move out of the city and spend more time with their family.
Melvin now has three great-grandchildren, and while Marvin never had any kids, he called himself a “great uncle.”
Arteaga Landaverde said she knows the Morgan brothers will still be involved throughout the hospital and the neighborhood. Neither became active for any fame or accolades, she said, and they’ve inspired many other people to continue to help.
“They did it because they love their neighborhoods and they love the people in them,” she said.