New York crematories overwhelmed by the number of dead get help from volunteers

Crematoriums in hard hit areas of New York have a backlog of nearly a month and now volunteers are coming to their aid.

Mike Lanotte, the executive director for the New York State Funeral Directors Association tells CNN that volunteers are helping to ease the burden that downstate crematories in places like Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island are experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Licensed funeral director volunteers, like 58-year-old Dave Penepent, work with multiple funeral homes to pick up and transport bodies of the deceased to out of area crematories.

Penepent, also an associate professor of Funeral Services Administration at State University of New York at Canton, said, “I knew that with the backlog of human remains down in the NYC area there was going to be the need to find a solution to get these remains to a final resting place.”

Volunteers transport bodies out-of-state

In the beginning of April, Penepent created a volunteer operation he calls “Hands with a Heart,” along with four of his students now deputized as resident funeral directors.

“I’m just offering a hand, and what is in that hand — the hearts of the bereaved families. In the middle of our hands is the grieving hearts of the bereaved,” Penepent told CNN.

Over Easter week Penepent said he and his team transported 70 bodies to crematories out of the area to their final resting place.

In the past week Hands with a Heart transported 150 bodies, and Penepent said he is looking at close to another 200 to 250 to be transported this week. Most are going out-of-state to places like Connecticut, Vermont and Pennsylvania.

“I missed my Easter holiday but thought what better way than honoring Christianity and my principles than by helping families know that their loved ones were laid to rest in a dignified and respectable manor,” he said.

NY needs more crematories

According to Penepent there are only five crematories in New York City and that needs to change.

“New York state only has 48 crematories, and there are some states that have one-third of the population with two-thirds more crematories than New York state,” he said. “This is a problem that needs to be addressed in the future.”

Penepent uses a tracking system for the transport of human remains that he learned from working a plane disaster earlier on in his 28-year career. Each body is given a tracking number in order to monitor the body from the funeral home to the crematory and then back again to the family.

Penepent estimates transporting a deceased body to an out of area crematory can cost roughly $25 a person for gas, lodging, van and food for individual making the transport.

“I am not getting paid, my reward is the solitude of knowing that families can begin the grieving process because they know their loved ones have been laid to rest,” Penepent said.

Penepent expects to be transporting bodies all summer long and hopes the private donations continue to keep his program afloat.

“I’m not pointing the fingers at government or the funeral industry, so when, not if, this happens again, we have a system in place that will be able to accommodate the large number of human remains that need final dispositions, Penepant said.

Volunteers funded by funeral directors association

Lanotte said his association has been covering the expenses of volunteers like Penepent who are assisting with body transport.

“We have had an amazing outpouring of support and have received donations from other funeral directors and other funeral associations as well,” Lanotte told CNN.

The association also launched a disaster relief fund out of their Tribute Foundation to help cover the transportation costs associated with the volunteerism that is being provided during this pandemic, Lanotte said.

He added, “the volunteer efforts of all these funeral directors who have come to the aid of their colleagues downstate has provided much needed relief at a time when the system remains highly stressed due to the volume of deaths we are still experiencing.”