NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Morgue space is almost full in New York City, according to FEMA records reviewed by ABC News. Funeral homes in the city are also overwhelmed.

Eighty-five refrigerated trucks have been ordered from the military to hold the dead. The trucks are due in New York by the middle of April.

FEMA has requested that the Defense Department make available 100,000 body bags to assist state health agencies with mortuary affairs. The request comes as the White House revealed this week that as many as 240,000 Americans could die from the coronavirus.

Earlier this week, FEMA requested that a DOD mortuary affairs support team deploy to New York state, according to Vice Director of Operations for the Joint Staff Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro. That team arrived in New York on Wednesday, and a second mortuary affairs support team is expected to be deploy elsewhere in the United States, a U.S. official told ABC News.

New York City funeral homes are also overwhelmed.

Pat Marmo walked among 20 or so deceased in the basement of his Brooklyn funeral home, his protective mask pulled down so his pleas could be heard.

"Every person there, they're not a body," he said. "They're a father, they're a mother, they're a grandmother. They're not bodies. They're people."

Like many funeral homes in New York and around the globe, Marmo's business is in crisis as he tries to meet surging demand amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed around 1,400 people in New York City alone, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

His two cellphones and the office line are ringing constantly. He's apologizing to families at the start of every conversation for being unusually terse, and begging them to insist hospitals hold their dead loved ones as long as possible.

His company is equipped to handle 40 to 60 cases at a time, no problem. On Thursday morning, it was taking care of 185.

"This is a state of emergency," he said. "We need help."

Funeral directors are being squeezed on one side by inundated hospitals trying to offload bodies, and on the other by the fact that cemeteries and crematoriums are booked for a week at least, sometimes two.

Marmo let The Associated Press into his Daniel J. Schaefer funeral home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Thursday to show how dire the situation has become.

He has about 20 embalmed bodies stored on gurneys and stacked on shelves in the basement and another dozen in his secondary chapel room, both chilled by air conditioners. He estimated that more than 60% had died of the new coronavirus.

"It's surreal," he said. Hospitals in New York have been using refrigerated trucks to store the dead, and Marmo is trying to find his own.

One company quoted him a price of $6,000 per month, and others are refusing outright because they don't want their equipment used for bodies.

Even if he gets a truck, he has nowhere obvious to put it. He's wondering if the police station across the street might let him use its driveway. He's also hoping the Environmental Protection Agency will lift regulations that limit the hours crematoriums can operate. That would ease some of the backlog.

The surge in deaths is coming at a time when there are tight restrictions on gatherings, making saying goodbye a lonely process.

A family at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn this week leaned over a yellow chain serving as a cordon and tossed roses at the casket of a loved one. Another in Queens offered final goodbyes through the windows of their cars.

At one cemetery in the Bronx, where visitors were barred entirely, a funeral director stood over the grave and took photos to send to mourners.

"The whole process, including the experience for the family during the funeral, is one of sort of isolation rather than the support," said Bonnie Dixon, president of Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens.

Jackie McQuade, a funeral director at Schuyler Hill funeral home in the Bronx, has struggled to tell families no. But she has no choice, given rules limiting services to immediate family only, if that. One cemetery she worked with has locked its gates to family and friends. Only she and a priest were allowed at the site of a burial. She photographed the casket being lowered, hoping it could bring some closure to the family.

"We would be going crazy if it were one of our loved ones," she said. "We're bearers of bad news on top of a sad situation."

Marmo said he's hardly sleeping from the stress, worried he'll forget a small but critical task, like removing someone's ring before they're sent for cremation.

He's set to host a funeral Friday for a 36-year-old New York City subway driver who died last week helping riders evacuate a burning train.

There will be a limited service in his main chapel, where he has 10 chairs, lined in two rows with 6 feet (2 meters) between each.

The best he can do while respecting "social distancing" guidelines.

"The guy deserves a funeral down the Canyon of Heroes," Marmo said, referring to a stretch of Broadway in lower Manhattan where ticker tape parades are traditionally held. "Is he going to get that? He's not going to get that. And it's horrible"


Funeral Homes Overwhelmed With COVID-19 Cases
April 5, 20207:00 AM ET


Employee Gina Hansen (right) hands documentation to a client outside the Daniel J. Schaefer Funeral Home in Brooklyn on Thursday.
John Minchillo/AP
The fast-growing number of cases of COVID-19 around the country is also bringing a surge in the number of deaths. In New York City alone, the death toll is in the thousands and rising steeply every day.

There, and in places such as Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans, funeral directors are struggling to meet the increased demand. Joseph Lucchese, who owns and directs a funeral home in the Bronx, says it's unlike anything he's ever seen and it's dispelled any doubts he once had about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

"When this first started, I really thought this was bull****, and it's not," he says. "There is a lot of people dying out there. And it's really, really scary."

Map: Tracking The Spread Of The Coronavirus In The U.S.
Map: Tracking The Spread Of The Coronavirus In The U.S.
Funeral homes in the New York City area are being called on to bury more people. At the same time, because of the coronavirus, they have to take precautions that limit the number of funerals they can conduct each day. Lucchese says, under New York rules, the funerals are limited to no more than 10 people, and he can conduct just three a day.

"In between every family, we'll clean and disinfect every funeral home so there's very little chance of cross-contamination from families," he says.

With the pandemic, the process of transferring bodies from hospitals has changed.

"We go to just about every hospital and nursing home in the Bronx," Lucchese says. "Most of the hospitals have gotten these refrigerated trailers in."

Instead of going into the hospital, he says, sometimes funeral home staff members are asked to wait outside while the hospital does the paperwork.

Funeral Homes Change Their Practices In Response To Coronavirus
"You need the doctors to come down and physically sign the death certificate," he explains. It's done electronically, he says, "but it's still overwhelming when they have so many deaths in the hospital."

Mike Lanotte, the head of the New York State Funeral Directors Association, says that in New York City and surrounding suburbs, the deaths are double normal levels.

"There has definitely been a stress on the system," Lanotte says. "Our funeral directors are working at maximum capacity."

One problem, he says, is scheduling burials and cremations. Crematories in New York state have been given permission to extend their operating hours and some, he says, are operating nearly around the clock.

In the Detroit area, where there's also been a sudden rise in the number of deaths from COVID-19, Timothy Schramm directs the Howe-Peterson Funeral homes.

Social Distancing Means Mourners Find New Ways To Cope And Connect
Social Distancing Means Mourners Find New Ways To Cope And Connect
"In an epidemic or pandemic, there's going to be inherent delays at cemeteries or crematories because they can only handle a certain number each day," Schramm says.

A major concern for funeral home staff, as it is for health care workers, is making sure they're protected from contagion.

"We have seen funeral directors who've become ill as a result from getting the virus," Lanotte says about the situation in New York. "We also have some who are simply in quarantine because they've been in close contact with folks who have tested positive."

With the coronavirus, funeral home staff have stepped up the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

"We have some concerns that they are running very low, if not out of those supplies," he says.

With the new safeguards, Schramm says at his funeral homes in Michigan, they're trying to conserve their supplies.

Alternative Mourning Rituals Offer Comfort And Closure During An Outbreak
Alternative Mourning Rituals Offer Comfort And Closure During An Outbreak
"Our team goes through a lot of PPEs on a daily basis when you look at a two-person transfer team (and) our embalmers operating in our care centers," he says.

Like hospitals and emergency managers around the country, funeral directors are scrambling to find supply chains with available masks and face shields to keep them operating.

In the New York City area, Lanotte says he believes the next six weeks will be very challenging for funeral homes, as the fatalities from COVID-19 will keep rising.

Patrick Kearns runs four family-owned funeral homes in Queens and Long Island. In the last two weeks of March, he says the numbers began to spike — triple what they had been. The pandemic, he says, is tough on families who have to bury loved ones without a funeral or a visitation. It's also tough on his staff.

"It's an extremely emotionally and physically overwhelming task to be in a tractor-trailer that is just full of bodies," he says. "Even if you're a professional who's used at some level of being around death, to be surrounded by that much is really a lot."


New York considers loosening requirements for funeral directors as bodies pile up
By DANA RUBINSTEIN 04/03/2020 04:24 PM EDT
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NEW YORK — In a move that could ease the passage of bodies from refrigerated morgues to cemeteries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering allowing out-of-state funeral directors to work in New York under the license of an existing practitioner, a state official told POLITICO.

The potential executive order would dovetail with an existing effort by the state's Funeral Directors Association to recruit upstate funeral directors to New York City to help their overwhelmed colleagues. Overburdened funeral homes are running out of space to process bodies, with the lockdown forcing them to abbreviate mourning rituals — an idea no one seems to relish.

"All of these families want to have a funeral. And they can’t," said Anthony Cassieri, who runs Brooklyn Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Brownsville. "You can’t celebrate somebody’s life. It’s a sin. It really is a sin.”

On Wednesday night, the state association issued a "call of action” to funeral directors from around the state asking them to come to New York City to help process the dead, said Mike Lanotte, the executive director and CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

Lanotte's action is both a call to call to arms and a death knell, as New York's coronavirus fatality toll on Friday leapt past the death toll the state sustained on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’ve talked to funeral directors who've been practicing for 30 or 40 years who said they've never seen anything like this in their life,” Lanotte said.

As of Thursday night, Covid-19 had taken 1,562 lives in New York City. The city's four crematories can now work 24 hours a day. The city has established at least 45 mobile morgues to supplement the existing body storage capacity. The U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly sending dozens of mortuary affairs officers to help run the new morgues.

At Hart Island, the city potter's field administered by the Department of Correction, the number of burials has increased from 30 or fewer a week to 100 a week, the department confirmed.

“If everybody stops dying for two months, we’ll still be working like this for six to eight months,” Cassieri said.

Funeral directors are a key link in the chain that connects coronavirus victims to their final resting places. When a patient dies, the funeral directors speak with the family, provide caskets, stage whatever wakes or funerals they can and then transport the deceased to the cemetery or crematorium.

They number of deceased is overwhelming their systems — so, too, is a shortage of workers at both crematories and cemeteries, where workers are getting sick, and where operators, in an effort to protect their workers, have moved people into shifts.

In pre-Covid-19 times, when Cassieri needed to cremate a body, he’d call up the crematory and take the body there at his leisure. Now, crematories are requiring appointments, sometimes more than a week in advance.

Cassieri thinks the state should grant funeral directors access to mobile crematories, so “we could start cremating our own work,” he said. He imagines setting one up in a parking lot or a garage.

To that end, he sought help from Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge and passed on his request to the authorities.

“The grim reality is they have 40 or 50 people that need to be waked at their funeral homes and they have nowhere to store the bodies,” Brannan said.

At the moment, state law restricts crematory operations to cemeteries, according to David Fleming, the director of legislative affairs at the New York State Association of Cemeteries.

But mobile crematories — or “retorts,” as they are known — have been “part of the mass casualty planning that’s around for a while,” Fleming said. “These retorts are available and they would most likely be run by cemeteries and Department of Defense employees.”

Fleming said that the city’s four crematories are now “hovering around capacity,” and have had to dispatch some bodies outside of the city.

He suggested funeral directors could help increase that capacity by encasing bodies in cardboard “cremation containers,” rather than heavy wooden caskets.

“Obviously the flame has to consume the casket, as well as the body,” Fleming said. “It slows us down significantly when funeral directors are selling ornate caskets to people during a pandemic.”

Some capacity issues, however, are harder to control. Funeral, cemetery and crematory workers aren’t just processing those killed by the coronavirus. They’re getting infected, too.

It remains unclear how long a body riddled with the coronavirus remains infectious, but workers are getting sick.

“The belief is that you really have to be expelling droplets or that sort of thing, [but] those things can still happen with the decedent,” Fleming said. “We have had funeral directors who have contracted Covid-19.”

Absent a smooth protocol for processing the dead, authorities may have no recourse but to send bodies to the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island.

“Hart Island has plenty of burial space and city burials are much faster than cremation,” said Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, which advocates for greater access to the island. “[The Department of Correction] can bury 25 bodies in an hour on Hart Island. This will be the only option for many of the Covid-19 victims because there is not anywhere near enough capacity at crematoriums or private cemeteries. Funeral directors won’t be able to handle the number of bodies.”