Volume of virus deaths spawn transfers to upstate crematories

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this file photo from February, general contractor Rocco DelGrosso, Tim Baxter, Oakwood Cemetery's director of operations, board president Ralph Aversa and vice president Whitney Mallam check out the Oakwood Crematory Facility. Oakwood Cemetery was contacted this week by the state association regarding the potential opportunity to process corpses from the downstate region.

ALBANY — A growing backlog of corpses waiting to be processed at cremation sites underscores the importance for more effective national and state plans for death-dealing pandemics, cemetery advocates say.

As New York's death toll from the COVID-19 crisis climbed to 16,162 Friday, the wait time for a cremation in the downstate region is now at least 30 days, David Fleming, legislative director for the New York State Association of Cemeteries, told CNHI.

"One very significant concern we have is what happens if there is a second wave from this pandemic, with a loss of life that is as great or even more than what has happened in the first wave," Fleming said.

While pandemic planning has appropriately focused on fortifying health care delivery systems, the COVID-19 experience has pointed to the need for more focused planning for a wave of fatalities, he suggested.

He said the association has been working with state government officials in an effort to permit bodies now being stored in the New York City to be transferred to upstate cremation facilities, which have not been as heavily impacted by the influx of corpses.

The crematory operations are nonprofit establishments that are typically affiliated with cemeteries and are highly regulated by the state.

Some cremations of people who died in New York City are expected to take place in the coming days at upstate crematories, including at the Oswegatchie Crematory near Ogdensburg and at another facility in the Syracuse area.

Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, which opened a new crematory last year, was contacted this week by the state association regarding the potential opportunity to process corpses from the downstate region.

Ralph Aversa, president and co-administrator at Oakwood, said that request is being reviewed, noting Oakwood has been busy handling cremations of human remains from the Western New York region.

Aversa said the cremation equipment can handle about three cremations over 12 hours per day of operation.

While corpses brought to the site by funeral directors have not been flagged as victims of COVID-19, Aversa said the Oakwood crematory workers "are taking every precaution" in the event that is the case.

Fleming said he expects more bodies from New York City will be transferred to upstate crematories. New York City, with 9 million residents, has only four crematories, with an additional one in nearby Westchester County.

In general, he said, the upstate crematories have greater capacity to absorb the work now overwhelming their downstate counterparts. This has led to recognition of the need for "south to north" transfers of corpses, some of which have had to be stored in refrigerated trailers.

Some bodies have already been transferred to crematories in Vermont, New Jersey and Pennsylvania because there is less bureaucratic regulation on the out-of-state transfers than on those within the state.

The machinery being used for the flood of cremations has been getting such heavy use that it has sparked worries it will break down, leading to even more pressure on the system, Fleming said.

Cremations, he added, are being sought by an increasing number of families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

"We are all stuck in this pandemic situation, where so many families can't get together and can't properly mourn, can't have services like they would normally have," Fleming said. "So many of them are opting for cremation, because that gives them an opportunity to do something later on, over a much more extended period."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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