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Burying Unnamed COVID Victims in NYC

A portion of the three-story columbarium at St. James’, New York

By Neva Rae Fox

Sometimes great and loving ministry is sparked simply by one person who wants to do something in response to a terrible situation. That’s the case when a parishioner at St. James, New York City, approached  the rector about COVID-19 victims whose bodies were being stored, unnamed, and unclaimed.

“We had all begun to read the stories in late spring of 2020 of the refrigerator trucks being used as a temporary morgue, as well as some of the horror stories from them,” explained the Rev. Brenda Husson, rector of St. James.

Photos showing refrigerator trucks containing dead bodies were splayed in news media across the world.

The suggestion by the St. James parishioner, who requests anonymity, sparked the Covid Burial Project, implemented by the well-established Partnership for Faith for New York City, a citywide coalition of Episcopal and other churches, synagogues, and faith communities that joined forces to provide resources and space for burials or cremations.

“This partnership includes clergy from the three great Abrahamic faiths and is devoted to working together for the welfare of the city,” Husson said.

On March 9, 2020, Husson, along with the Rev. James Morton of St. James and members of the Partnership, visited the Brooklyn Pier where the refrigerated trailers, the temporary morgues for an estimated 300 COVID-19 victims, were positioned.

“Early on, a small group from the Partnership for Faith went out to the temporary morgue,” Husson said. “We could not get past the gate, but we knew that. We went and prayed for a while. We made the journey to offer prayers as a first step to providing dignified committal and burial services for these, our neighbors, some of whom have no family or whose family cannot provide funeral costs.”

The Rev. Cindy Stravers of Heavenly Rest in Manhattan talked about that day. “We didn’t know what we were going to be able to do,” she relayed. “We went to pray for all the victims of COVID and those who mourn. These people probably got sick alone, died alone. There was a lot of that.”

The project called for working closely with the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office, which was responsible for identification and notifying next of kin.

“The medical examiner’s office was very careful about adhering to religious and cultural beliefs,” Stravers said.

St. James, Heavenly Rest, and other faith communities took the task of contacting the family to offer services, burial plots, and space in columbariums.

“I called the family members,” Stravers said. “There was a spouse, there was a stepmother, there was a cousin. Some had lost track of the family. One woman said, ‘I hadn’t seen my cousin in 40 years,’ but she was next of kin.”

Stravers said that when the families were notified, “We had requests primarily for cremations. The family wanted ashes. They just wanted to have their person back.”

Husson remembered an emotional service at St. James for a family in Queens. “They were not Episcopalians, but they were people of faith.”

In addition to the church services, the financial and in-kind donations poured in.

“We have a beautiful columbarium,” Husson said. “We were willing to donate niches and the cost of cremations.” Additionally, St. James parishioners donated funds and burial spots.

St. Michael’s, Manhattan, operates a cemetery and crematorium in Queens. The Rev. Julie M. Hoplamazian, associate rector, explained, “St. Michael’s participated in the COVID Burial Project by offering cremations free of charge at our cemetery. This decision was made by the rector, vestry, and cemetery leadership together. The parish was certainly supportive of this endeavor, primarily through their prayers, but also through our outreach ministries which ensured this opportunity was available to vulnerable folks in our community.”

“In April of 2020, the Queens community was particularly hard hit,” said Dennis Werner, cemetery general manager. “We were getting inundated with calls for funeral services. Our crematory was receiving as many as 100 calls per day to arrange cremation services. We began to operate the crematory from 6 a.m. to midnight and we were still booking services more than 20 days in advance.”

“So, when we were asked to participate in this project, we were enthusiastic about helping to support our ministry and provide a service for the community,” he said. “We offered to provide ten cremations at no charge to either those with no family or whose family lacked the financial resources to provide the service.”

Key to the COVID Burial Project was the support and help of vestries, parishioners, funeral homes, and individuals. All agreed the work of the funeral homes was invaluable.

Other organizations included FEMA and veterans’ groups because, as Stravers explained, “It turned out that a lot of the remaining cases were vets, so the VA was there to take care of that in the end.”

While the Medical Examiner’s office has now closed the operations at the Brooklyn pier, the impact of the ministry is still being witnessed.

The Rev. Matt Heyd of Heavenly Rest called it “a complicated project,” adding, “This was a way for our community to help the city to grieve. Our community wants to be connected, can help, can be faithful, and Christian.”

This kind of ministry is not unusual for St. James. “We have a history of doing services for homeless people,” Husson said.

As for this ecumenical, interfaith effort, Husson stated, “It’s NYC – we don’t care what your faith is, we will do this for you. This is NYC and we are deeply committed to NYC.”


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