Overwhelmed Crematories Are Working 'Around The Clock' To Meet Demand Brought On By COVID-19

Crematories in some parts of the country are working 24 hours per day, seven days per week -- in some cases making employees work double shifts -- in order to deal with the rush of dead bodies brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, USA Today reports.

Hospitals, morgues, and funeral homes in some cities are effectively overflowing with dead bodies, as these facilities race to keep up with demand. In some cases, authorities have turned to funeral homes to cremate the dead in order to ease the strain.

Even so, properly burning a dead body -- particularly in a way that is respectful to the deceased and their loved ones -- is a process that takes time to be done properly. As such, crematories are finding it difficult to keep up with the demand.

At the crematorium at Brooklyn's Green-Wood cemetery, workers must first put on protective gear and spray down the deceased and their casket, when applicable, with bleach, as the coronavirus can be spread via dead bodies. Workers there hope that the bodies are being cremated in simpler cardboard caskets, as the more traditional wooden ones take longer to burn.

The crematories at the cemetery operate 24 hours a day, seven days per week, with employees putting in 12-hour shifts.

"It seemed like it went from zero to 60 in two seconds," said Eric Barna, vice president of operations at Green-Wood.

A medical worker approaches a refrigerator truck being used as a morgue outside of Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City.
Getty Images | Stephanie Keith

Part of the problem in New York is the matter of state law, which requires crematories to be in cemeteries. That means that there are only four such establishments serving a population of roughly 8.5 million in a densely-packed urban area in which the coronavirus is running rampant.

In fact, so severe is the problem of accumulating dead bodies in New York City that refrigerated trucks are serving as temporary morgues.

The problem isn't just limited to New York, however. In New Orleans, for example, the deceased are typically interred in tombs, often following a funeral complete with a jazz band. Such funerals are now off the table due to social distancing, and many families are opting to have their loved ones cremated.

Crematories in The Crescent City can barely keep up, says funeral-home owner Malcolm Gibson. Like his colleagues in New York, his employees are working 12-hour shifts as the machines operate all day long.

"It's carnage, to have this level of tragedy in such a short period of time," he said.

And in some places, running the crematories for so long is itself dangerous, as some of the machines -- the older ones, in particular -- need a cool-down period after use.