(NEW YORK) — A New York City funeral home that resorted to storing dozens of bodies on ice in rented trucks after it was overwhelmed by coronavirus deaths is being investigated by state officials.
The funeral home in Brooklyn could face civil fines and suspensions after authorities responding to complaints by passersby about a bad smell there Wednesday found that the home had rented four trucks to hold about 50 corpses, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Thursday.
A neighboring business owner had also called 911 to report that there were fluids leaking from one of the trucks, police said.
Health officials “have now issued guidance to all the funeral homes that we will not tolerate any of that kind of behavior,” Zucker said at the daily coronavirus briefing by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“Obviously the funeral home shouldn’t have done that,” Cuomo said.
Messages were left Thursday with Andrew T. Cleckley, the owner of the funeral home. He told The New York Times on Wednesday that he needed to use the trucks for overflow storage after he had filled his chapel with more than 100 corpses.
“I ran out of space,” he said. “Bodies are coming out of our ears.”
The funeral home was initially cited for failing to control the odors before it obtained a larger, refrigerated truck later in the day. Workers suited up in protective gear could be seen Thursday afternoon transferring bodies into the refrigerated truck.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called the actions of funeral home officials “unconscionable.”
“I have no idea in the world how any funeral home could let this happen,” the Democrat said at his news briefing, arguing that officials at the home should have asked its state regulators or even city police for help if it was becoming overwhelmed.
The funeral home “should have been able to figure it out,” he said.
New York City funeral homes have struggled in the city since late March as the number of fatalities linked to the virus has topped 18,000.
The city set up temporary morgues. Hospitals used refrigerated tractor trailers to cart away multiple bodies at a time, sometimes loading them in public view on the sidewalk. Crematoriums have been backed up. Funeral directors across the city have pleaded for help as they have run out of space.
Many people working at the funeral homes have expressed “concerns regarding storage,” but none as extreme as those reported at the Brooklyn funeral home, Mike Lanotte, spokesman for the New York State Funeral Directors Association, said Thursday. Lanotte said the home wasn’t a member of the group.
There were worries on Thursday that the chaos at the Brooklyn funeral home would make it difficult for families to keep track of bodies of loved ones, said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
The pain for those families “must be immaginable,” he said.