Op-Ed: Flatlands Funeral Director Shouldn’t Be Scapegoated

A coffin and bottles of bleach in the back of a U-Haul truck outside Andrew T. Cleckley’s Funeral Home, 2037A Utica Avenue in Flatlands. Photo by Ariama Long.

In a case of extreme scapegoating, the New York Times and other media outlets reported this week that State Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Howard Zucker revoked mortician Andrew Cleckey’s funeral director’s license and his mortuary business registration for the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home, 2037A Utica Avenue in Flatlands for allegedly mishandling the remains of dozens of deceased COVID-19 victims.

As KCP and other news outlets reported on April 29, several dozen decomposing and foul-smelling bodies were discovered in U-Haul trucks in front of the funeral home at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, which left thousands of New Yorker dead.

The Times reported in this story that at the height of the pandemic, the state provided refrigerated trailers to funeral homes, and eased restrictions on licenses so that out-of-state funeral directors could come and volunteer their services.

While this statement is accurate, the timeline is wrong. The state’s actions were not taken until a week after the grisly Flatlands discovery. As KCP reported, the timeline is as follows:

The Bureau of Funeral Direction, under the DOH, issued its first real guidelines on March 17 and it came in response to “multiple inquiries from the funeral directing industry throughout the State.”  The guidelines stated that personal protective equipment (PPE) was essential and warned against handling bodies directly, but said nothing about storage overflow. 

On April 7, the National Funeral Directors Association urgently reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo with an open letter, begging the governor to sign an executive order that would allow hundreds of volunteer funeral directors from throughout the country to come to the city to deal with the avalanche of dead bodies.

A week later, on April 14, the DOH finally released a letter of guidance to funeral directors in the state saying they would allow out-of-state licensed funeral directors to help with the overflow of the dead. 

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, even though it is a state and not city jurisdiction, proactively took charge in working out systematic procedures and arrangements in dealing with the dead.

On April 26, Adams stood outside the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in Manhattan to demand wide-reaching reforms to the way the bodies of those who pass from COVID-19 are handled and buried. 

He noted then that there were numerous reports from funeral home directors across the city indicating that bodies are being stored with little regard for the dignity of the deceased, causing added pain for their loved ones.

Among the changes Adams called for were extending the hours morgues were open across the city to allow funeral homes to retrieve the bodies, and mandating those non-private cemeteries across the state double the capacity of burials.

Three days later, on April 29, the bodies were found in U-Haul trucks outside Cleckley’s Funeral Home, which is actually an ancillary business in that it mainly does prep and embalming work for other funeral homes.

On May 4, Adams convened a virtual task force meeting with funeral home directors, faith leaders, morgue operators, cemeteries, OCME and other stakeholders for a Bereavement Task Force.

During the call, the OCME highlighted three policy changes to help the “death care” system function more smoothly. One of those policy changes was to store bodies in refrigerated trucks at Pier 39 in Sunset Park to ease the burden on funeral homes.

The trucks were brought in on May 5, a week after the bodies were discovered in Flatlands.

KCP is no attorney, but does know the legal phrase, “mitigating circumstances” and there is strong evidence that the DOH was as caught off guard, negligent and complicit in the dead bodies left in Flatlands as Cleckey.

If anybody should take the rap here it is Zucker. Not a Black business owner trying to make an honest living in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood.