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Workers at an East Harlem funeral home used a U-Haul and other rental trucks to transport bodies in recent weeks — with some employees at times not wearing masks and gloves even as coronavirus raged.
Video obtained by THE CITY shows three workers removing a body from the storage area of a U-Haul double-parked outside First Avenue Funeral Services on East 116th Street on April 15.
The workers placed the body — shrouded in an orange body bag and wrapped in a white sheet — on a stretcher, threw a green blanket on top and wheeled it toward the funeral home. Two of the workers were not wearing masks.
“They use U-Haul, they use Ryder, they use Penske and now I see another truck that I think is working with them. It’s all covered in graffiti,” said the person who provided the video to THE CITY.
“I understand these businesses are overwhelmed,” the source added. “I don’t want to make something sensational out of this, but I’m concerned about the workers.”
The witness noted that many workers had since been seen wearing protective gear, and that most of the trucks used to transport and sometimes store the bodies now appear to be refrigerated.
Late Thursday, however, workers could be seen moving an occupied body bag into the back of an unrefrigerated Penske truck outside the funeral home.
Landlord ‘Freaked Out’
The CEO of the funeral home, Elefterios Filipoussis, said the moving trucks were a sad necessity given the volume of deaths caused by COVID-19, as are refrigerated trucks parked on the street.
He even recently rented out a short-term commercial space on East 134th Street in The Bronx — to put ashes in boxes and bodies in caskets — before, he said, the landlord “freaked out” and shut it down.
The masked workers and movement of body bags caused a stir among residents of the East 134th Street industrial building — one of whom dubbed it a “pop-up morgue” in an online post — and spurred someone to call the police.
An NYPD spokesperson said officers visited the site on April 21 but that “no deceased persons were observed at the location.”
Filipoussis said he understands why some neighbors in The Bronx and East Harlem might have concerns.
“You’re seeing bodies come in and out of a funeral home — it could be difficult, especially if you lost someone of your own not too long ago,” he said.
But Filipoussis said the workers have been careful about using protective gear. The bodies are all triple-bagged, he added, and the bags are disinfected before transport. Refrigerated trucks parked on the street are part of the setup, he said.
Filipoussis said his storage issues would be resolved if hospitals would agree to hold onto bodies for longer, but that they haven’t been willing.
He said the city could also help him by finding a reasonable parking spot for a 53-foot refrigerated truck he’d like to purchase — something he’s reached out to the NYPD and local elected officials about.
“I’m willing to work with whichever agency is willing to work with me to come to a solution,” he said.
Part of a Wider Problem
The East Harlem funeral home isn’t alone in struggling under the weight of a brutal virus that as of Thursday had been linked to nearly 18,000 deaths in New York City.
On Wednesday, police found dozens of bodies stored in U-Haul trucks outside a Brooklyn funeral home — whose director told The New York Times his site had corpses “coming out of our ears.”
Earlier in April, the New York Post reported that a funeral home in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay had been keeping bodies in an outdoor yard covered by a blue tarp.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who visited the gruesome scene outside T. Cleckley Funeral Home in the Flatlands neighborhood Wednesday, called for a bereavement task force of funeral directors, morgue managers and clergy.
He said he would convene the group next week “to create a comprehensive plan to deal with the surge in bodies we are seeing from COVID-19.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that a task force was a good forum to share information and support, but that he saw reports of funeral homes mishandling bodies as an exception.
“I do not see that as a widespread reality. They’ve gone through a lot, but they’ve managed to keep providing support for people,” the mayor said when asked about body storage problems during a news conference Thursday.
“We will support them anyway we can and we’ll keep watching for what they need. But I think they’re doing a very admirable job — the vast majority of them.”
The mayor added that his administration had been holding weekly calls with funeral homes to discuss challenges and offer support, even though funeral homes are regulated by the state.
Mike Lanotte, a spokesperson for the New York State Funeral Directors Association, said the city medical examiner’s office had worked to accommodate funeral homes — including by extending its hours of operation.
He said crematories are operating around the clock, and that most cemeteries have extended their hours. But even those measures haven’t kept pace with the need.
“The biggest challenge is the number of hours in the day compared to the number of deaths we have seen — there simply isn’t enough time to meet the current demand,” said Lanotte. “Efforts are underway at the state level to relieve the stress upon the downstate crematories, which will help create additional time.”
Asked about the use of unrefrigerated rental trucks for transporting the deceased, Lanotte said he knew of no statewide regulations on the matter.
It’s not entirely clear which state or city entity has jurisdiction over funeral transportations.
Officials at the State Department of Health referred questions to the city medical examiner’s office, which they said “oversee[s] morgues and deaths in their communities.”
Officials at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner countered that the state regulates how funeral homes are allowed to transport the dead.
State Department of Health officials acknowledged they had received an inquiry about a funeral home using a U-Haul for storage of bodies on East 116th Street, but that it was an issue for the local health department to address.
A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would only say that “we will continue to ensure every effort is made to properly respect all New Yorkers and their families.”
Reps for U-Haul and Ryder made it clear it’s prohibited to use their rental trucks to transport human remains. Both firms said trucks are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after each vehicle’s return.
‘Full of People’
Outside First Avenue Funeral Services last week, Jesus Quinones and his sister Rosa stood in line on the sidewalk, waiting to discuss arrangements for their uncle Victor Aliers.
The 89-year-old had died of COVID-19 at the nearby Northern Manhattan Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, according to Jesus.
While they were waiting, the duo said they had seen workers from the funeral home open the back gate of a truck a day earlier — revealing body bags stacked on makeshift shelves along the sides.
Jesus Quinones said the sight of the “jam packed” truck troubled him so much that he went home that night and bit down all of his fingernails.
But he said the funeral home has been treating his family well during their time of pain, and that morticians shouldn’t bear the blame for being overwhelmed.
“To me, the people at the funeral home are doing the best they can with what they can,” he said.
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