Like all relatives and friends who come to Mount Richmond Cemetery in Staten Island during the coronavirus pandemic for the burial of a loved one or friend, Michael Tokar was asked to wait. He sat in his car until his father’s body could be brought to the site by four workers and then placed in a grave and covered with dirt by a machine.
But after a few minutes, Rabbi Shmuel Plafker walked up to Tokar’s car and told him the burial of his father, David, 92, would not happen that day.
“The hospital was so overwhelmed and when the funeral director came to pick up the body, it couldn’t be located,” explained Rabbi Plafker, who officiates at all burials at Mount Richmond Cemetery. Tokar “was asked to come back the next day. He understood.”
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all aspects of the Jewish mourning ritual: There are few in-person funerals; eulogies are recited at graveside and attendees are limited in number; some cemeteries require attendees to remain in their cars; and shiva gatherings are done on Zoom.
And as the Covid-19 crisis has dragged on through the spring, the Hebrew Free Burial Association has also become overwhelmed with bodies of indigent Jews who need burial.
Mount Richmond Cemetery is owned by the association, which was founded in 1888. It handles all burials of Jews who die without funds for funeral expenses. Since 2010, it has averaged about 360 burials annually. But so far this year the number is nearly 300 “and the year is not even half finished,” according to Amy Koplow, the organization’s executive director.
“We did 10 burials in one day,” she recalled. “That was a record breaker. But the next week, we did 11 burials in one day. … The majority of our cases are from the five boroughs, with most coming from Brooklyn and Queens. Now, there have been many cases from Nassau and Suffolk and Westchester, as well as from New Jersey and Rockland. We serve everybody who is Jewish.”
“It’s been crazy,” said Rabbi Plafker, the cemetery’s chaplain for more than 30 years. He observed that the most difficult part has been “keeping up with the schedule.”
Normally when bodies arrive, they are taken to a building where they are prepared by the chevra kadisha, volunteers who prepare the body for burial in accordance with Jewish law. But because of the increasing number of coronavirus victims, Koplow said they ran out of room and bought a free-standing refrigerator to store an additional four bodies.
“We quickly saw there was no way that would be sufficient either, because the week of March 29 we did 25 burials,” Koplow said as she looked through her diary. “In two weeks, we had gone from 10 to 25 burials and of those, 14 were Covid-19. So on April 3, we had to buy a 40-foot refrigerator trailer and had a carpenter go in and build shelving to store 100 bodies.
“The trailer cost us $12,200 and it cost us money to have it delivered on a flatbed truck. Then we hooked it up to a diesel generator that we rented at a cost of $100. I eventually paid a contractor to hook it up to electricity because it was getting too expensive.”
Running out of prayer shawls
Hebrew Free Burial raised about $1 million last year in donations. Koplow said it will need to raise $2 million by the end of this year because of all the added expenses. She noted that UJA-Federation of New York recognized the need earlier this year and already awarded a grant of $250,000.
Because of the surge in burials, Hebrew Free Burial was on the verge of running out of the prayer shawls in which bodies are interred. In early March it had about 60 taleisim, but they were gone by the second week of April. A call went out for more and within 48 hours 150 had been collected. It now has at least 2,000 that have been donated from as far away as Oregon and Florida.
Although the number of deaths per day from Covid-19 has been declining since early May, Hebrew Free Burial plans to keep the refrigerator trailer in the event of a surge. New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner may also release bodies now being stored in its refrigerated trailers.
A spokesperson for the medical examiner said the city has as many as 1,500 bodies in “permanent storage” awaiting their family’s plans regarding cremation or burial. She did not know how many might be Jewish.
Koplow said “we expect at some point when the medical examiner’s office does its research that there will be many, many cases of Jewish people whose bodies were not claimed. We get cases like that in non-Covid-19 times.”
The medical examiner’s office does an initial investigation to identify families of unclaimed bodies. If none are found, the case is turned over to the public administrator, whose office administers estates and protects the deceased’s property from waste, loss or theft; makes burial arrangements when there are no close relatives, and conducts an investigation to discover all assets.
If no relatives can be found, a public administrator looks for evidence of the person’s religion, such as a mezuzah or a Chanukah menorah in the home. If the person is Jewish, the Hebrew Free Burial Association handles the burial.
But, said Lois Rosenblatt, the public administrator for Queens, “because we are under a lockdown, our staff is not going into people’s apartments at this time.”
As a result, unclaimed bodies are buried in New York’s City’s potter’s field on Hart Island, one of the largest public cemeteries in the United States.
If a relative is later found, or the deceased’s religion is eventually determined, “people will be disinterred and buried where they properly belonged,” said Rosenblatt.
Koplow said if Hebrew Free Burial Association learns of a Jew who was buried in potter’s field, it will ask to disinter and then rebury the body “with a Jewish burial in our cemetery.”
“We are dealing with a Queens disinterment right now,” she said, noting that her organization pays all the costs.
A day after being asked to wait, Michael Tokar, who lives just two miles from Mount Richmond Cemetery, returned for his father’s burial. He sat in his car near the grave and listened on his cell phone while Rabbi Plafker officiated at the burial service while wearing a protective suit, mask and gloves.
Tokar said later that his father, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union 25 years ago, had gone to the hospital after experiencing kidney pain, was diagnosed with Covid-19 and died two days later. Tokar said he first learned that his father had been ill only when the hospital called to say he died.