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Cold Storage Versus Temporary Burial

What do you do with bodies that are not claimed?

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted is the issue of bodies that are unclaimed by families. This has been a problem, especially in New York City. At the height of the spring pandemic surge in NYC they had 800 people a day dying of the disease, not counting the surge in deaths from people dying in their home and not being directly attributable to the coronavirus. 

There is this quote from a New York Times article on dealing with storage of dead bodies: "What they came up with, these freezer containers for long-term storage, I think is going to be the new expectation,” said John Fudenberg, the executive director of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and the former coroner of Las Vegas. “They did it, they proved that it works, and I think it will be the wave of the future, because it’s a lot more socially acceptable and more sensitive than temporary burial.”

You may be thinking this is not new, but we are not talking refrigerator trucks but freezer trucks and storage facilities. The initial solution in NYC was to bury the bodies in the equivalent of a mass grave in a potter's field graveyard. [Note: If you look at the first photo in the linked definition it is from 1890 and eerily similar to images from 2020, also in NYC.] 

In NYC today they still have over 500 unclaimed bodies in freezer storage from the spring surge of COVID-19 cases. It is just another gruesome fact of the pandemic and a planning factor for when you revise your pandemic plans, which undoubtedly need revision. 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.