Mass Burial Details Emerge in New York Coronavirus Crisis

Mass burials in New York City.
Photos and video show pine boxes being buried.Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project

Mass burials skyrocket in New York potter's field due to coronavirus.

Potter's field burials have skyrocketed to five times the normal rate in New York City as officials struggle to keep up with an astounding death toll from the coronavirus.

Drone video and photographs emerged late this week of long trenches being filled with pine boxes on Hart Island, the city's public graveyard for the unclaimed and unidentified.

Workers in hazmat suits could be seen lowering caskets and stacking them into narrow dirt channels. The island has been taking bodies since the 1800s and is now overseen by the New York City Department of Correction.

Jail inmates usually bury the dead, but the department said private contractors have been brought for that grim task because of coronavirus contamination dangers. The names of the deceased are scrawled on the caskets for future identification by relatives, officials said.

The usual number of unclaimed bodies buried at the patch of land on Long Island Sound is about 25 per week, but that tally is now five times higher, according to the department.

Aerial photos taken Thursday by news agencies showed some 40 pine boxes awaiting interment.

The drastic increase in burials follows a recent change in policy by the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which shortened the stay of bodies in local morgues from 30 days to two weeks. Refrigerated trucks have been parked outside city hospitals in the past weeks as overflow storage for the dead.

New York state currently has the world's highest number of coronavirus cases, with more than 170,000 people infected. More than 87,000 of those residents live in the five boroughs of New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged the disturbing burial photos on Friday. "The pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us," he said on Twitter. "I want to make sure everyone knows what they’re seeing and what is actually happening on Hart Island. Remember, these are human beings. These are neighbors we've lost."

Earlier, he had said he hoped to avoid using Hart Island as a temporary storage place for coronavirus victims.