After returning from two weeks in New York City helping with its mortuary services, Dan Flynn decided to go for a walk with his wife near Santa Claus Lane in Carpinteria. Originally, Flynn was supposed to be home for a 10-day break, but he’d been called back to N.Y.C. — where daily deaths from COVID-19 have been the highest of any city in the United States — for another three weeks. What he saw on his walk alarmed him: people going about business as usual, hanging out in groups at the beach, and neglecting social-distancing protocol.
“I wanted to stand up on a rock and yell, ‘What are you all thinking?’ It’s concerning that people still aren’t taking this seriously enough,” said Flynn.
Flynn is a mortician at Simply Remembered, a cremation service in Santa Barbara. But he is also a member of the federal government’s mass-fatality team, which he describes as akin to “the national guard, but for mortuary services,” such as body identification, tracking, and burial preparation, during times of crisis.
This certainly isn’t Flynn’s first time responding to a crisis. After high school, Flynn joined the Coast Guard, where he spent eight years in search and rescue. During the response to 9/11, Flynn was a volunteer team leader and instructor with the American Red Cross’s Disaster Action Team. After that, a colleague told him about a search-and-rescue-focused FEMA team of specialists from different professions, which Flynn joined as a hazardous materials specialist. Several years later, Flynn joined the federal mass-fatality team (which he emphasized he doesn’t speak on behalf of). Over the years, he’s responded to 13 hurricanes, he said, most recently in Puerto Rico after it was devastated by 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
In mid-March of this year, Flynn spent several weeks at a cruise-ship quarantine facility, helping out with “general manpower needs, not mortuary response,” he said. A few weeks ago, he was “called up” and sent to New York City, where he spent two weeks at a facility in Brooklyn doing “decedent management,” photographing and identifying bodies and giving them case numbers.
After a few days back home in Carpinteria, Flynn is now back in New York, helping pick up bodies from homes around the city.
Usually, according to Flynn, New York City has four morgues. But, with capacity stretched thin, the federal government has set up a fifth facility in Brooklyn to process bodies after they are brought in from hospitals. This is the facility where Flynn worked. New York has also added at least 45 “mobile morgues” to expand its strained capacity. Many of those bodies brought to the Brooklyn facility are those who are unclaimed, homeless, or otherwise “the forgotten,” according to Flynn. “We make sure that every person, no matter where they come from in life, are given consideration and identified at the end of their life,” said Flynn.
To be clear, not all, or even most, of the bodies Flynn was working with were the victims of COVID-19. But in New York, where daily deaths from the virus have averaged 648 a day since the beginning of April, local mortuary services are nonetheless stretched impossibly thin.
“Local mortuaries are getting the crap kicked out of them right now,” said Flynn. “These small mom-and-pop mortuary services have enough refrigeration room for 5-10 bodies, and right now, demand is closer to 30 a day. They just don’t have that capacity, so the government has stepped in.”
During his time in New York, Flynn also assisted the city with autopsies and rode around the city with members of the U.S. Air Force, assisting with the process of picking up bodies, including those who were cases of suicide and homicide.
While Flynn says that these are indeed extraordinary times, he stresses the importance of avoiding hysteria and misinformation. “I want to be very clear that the same processes as usual are being observed, just at a higher rate. I’ve seen people claim they’re digging mass, unmarked graves in New York, and that is simply not true. That isn’t happening,” said Flynn. “Every single person who is buried has been identified, photographed, and given a case number. If someone comes to New York in 10 years and asks where their grandfather who died from COVID-19 is buried, they’ll be able to look it up and find the exact location. It’s important that we avoid hysteria and double-check our facts at a time like this.”
The footage that seems to show an alarming spectacle of huge, indiscriminate graves takes place at Hart Island, a one-mile stretch of land that New York City has used to bury what Flynn calls “the transient, the poor, the forgotten,” whose bodies are unclaimed or unidentified or whose families can’t afford burials. The facility has been in use for over 150 years and is the final resting place of more than a million bodies. That so many have died alone and destitute is a tragedy in itself, and surely a sign of many injustices. But what it is not, stresses Flynn, is a place where New York is dumping bodies into unmarked graves with no way of keeping track of their final resting place.
Another grisly spectacle that has become a source of fear and, occasionally, hysteria, is the image of bodies being stored in large refrigeration trucks. With local mortuaries overwhelmed, the government has been using these trucks to store bodies before they are laid to rest. “I understand that this is kind of an off-putting spectacle for some people, but the fact is that bodies need to be kept in refrigeration, and these mom-and-pop mortuaries just don’t have the space to do that right now,” said Flynn. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and that’s the reality.”
In Santa Barbara County, the Coroner’s Bureau has taken similar steps, and two refrigeration units were acquired by the county to expand their decedent capacity. Under normal circumstances, the county-wide capacity for decedents is 22. In times of mass-fatality events, they can expand their surge capacity to accommodate 50. Now, after taking steps such as the acquisition of the refrigeration units and deploying funeral homes, the county’s capacity is up to 335.
Even with Flynn cautioning against hysteria and misinformation, he’s also quick to urge people to take the pandemic more seriously than they have been. “Going for a run is all right, but a crowded beach? That just shouldn’t be happening, and it’s a sign that people still aren’t taking this seriously enough,” he said.
“I get that people might be getting antsy, but this is the reality we could be in for a while. People just need to be patient and ride this thing out. We haven’t seen anything like this since 1918, and people saying we need to start opening back up now that the curve is starting to flatten is like saying, ‘Opening my parachute has started to slow my descent, so I can take it off now.’ It’s very dangerous thinking.”
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