Hebrew burial group tries to save COVID victims in freezers from mass graves


BROOKLYN — It may seem hard to fathom, but more than 14 months after New York City went into lockdown–as COVID was killing nearly 800 people a day statewide–not all of the dead are buried.

“Deluged is the word,” noted Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association. 

At one point in 2020, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) was tasked with storing about 3,000 bodies of COVID victims who had not been claimed by families.

“How much can they do?” Koplow asked of the once-overwhelmed OCME.

As we reach the middle of 2021, the number of stored bodies has been reduced sharply after burials at the city’s public cemetery on Hart Island.

“We have approximately 750 decedents stored in our long-term storage facilitiy,” said OCME Chief of Staff Dina Maniotis in early May when she testified virtually before a City Council Committee.  “We will continue to reduce the size of the long-term mortuary operation.”

The long, white freezer trailers holding the dead are lined up in Red Hook’s Industry City complex in Brooklyn, near New York Harbor.

But the pace of burials is not happening fast enough for City Council Member Mark Gjonaj of the Bronx.

“It’s unforgivable that a year later, we still have bodies and the remains of human beings stored temporarily,” Gjonaj said, “as if they were unclaimed luggage at an airport.”

About 2,300 people were buried in the mass graves on Hart Island in 2020, three times the number from 2019.

John Heyer II, director at Scotto and Heyer Funeral Home, said many had died alone at home, in the hospital, or in nursing homes.

“In New York City, you need to have someone who’s a blood relative take responsibility for the disposition, after you pass,” Heyer told PIX11.  “We went through this unfortunately with September 11th, so we know there’s a process.”

The Hebrew Free Burial Association has been committed since the 1880’s to providing a dignified service and burial for indigent people of the Jewish faith.  It has buried more than 65,000 people since then, including COVID victims.

Koplow said the group buried 523 people in 2020, and “at least 176 had COVID on their death certificates.”

But Koplow noted many people simply had “natural causes” listed, so the COVID number was probably higher.

One of the COVID victims she planned a burial for was Lila Fudalowitz of Rego Park, who was a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor.

“She was two years old when her parents were killed by the Germans right in front of her,” Koplow said.  “She survived and an agency took her to France for a time.  She came to the United States 50 years ago.  She had cats.”

Koplow didn’t have a photo of Fudalowitz, but PIX11 found her name listed as a donor with the North Shore Animal League.

Funeral director Omar Rodriguez, who manages New York Memorial Chapel and assists at Neufeld Funeral Home in Elmhurst, pointed out that thousands of New York City death certificates likely don’t have COVID-19 listed as a cause of death.

“New York City does not enter a natural cause of death on a death certificate,” Rodriguez told PIX11. “COVID is a natural cause of death, like the flu.”

As investigations continue into the origins of SARS CoV2, many would argue there was nothing natural about this extremely contagious coronavirus that’s killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States alone.

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