Days after state health authorities suspended the license of an overwhelmed Brooklyn funeral home for storing dead bodies in moving trucks, New York City sheriff’s deputies accompanied by health officials were there Tuesday pouring over paperwork as part of their investigation.
While the storage scheme outside the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home on Utica Avenue in Flatlands was “appalling,” officials said they have yet to find evidence of criminality.
Officers from the 63rd Precinct converged at the funeral home on the afternoon of April 29, where an eyewitness allegedly saw “blood coming from one of the trucks.” Upon their arrival, the officers found funeral workers loading bodies from U-Haul trucks into a mobile refrigerated truck.
Officials stopped the move, and then allowed them to continue after backing the large truck to the building and covering it with a tarp, out of horrified view of residents.
The Cleckley funeral home had its license suspended, and no charges were lodged against the director or any of his workers. However, the large number of “improperly” stored bodies stirred public outrage with the funeral home and fear that the pandemic was worse than believed.
On May 5, officials left the funeral home telling the owners that there was “no judgment being made on conditions,” only statements of fact and they found no criminality. They also said conditions had “vastly improved” and the few bodies that were still in the home were properly accounted for.
A man who identified himself as the brother of funeral director Andrew Cleckley, who would not give his first name, told amNewYork Metro that his brother had been dragged through the mud with no proper justification. He blamed crematoriums for the tremendous backlog of bodies being stored at the site.
“I would love for you all to retract a lot of what you were putting out there in the media without knowing the facts,” Cleckley said. “They are saying there were hundreds of bodies – it’s fake news. Do your research and it will all come out – we are not concerned.”
Cleckley blamed the coronavirus pandemic that he said “took everybody by storm.”
“Nobody knew what to do – go ask the crematories why they don’t take the bodies when they are supposed- causing us to pile up – go ask crematories those questions,” he told this reporter. “We are not in the business of keeping no one’s bodies – we don’t get off on that. We provide a service of bury or cremate. But then the crematories tell us they can’t take these bodies for weeks at a time, then we are stuck.”
Cleckley said the funeral business is a 24-hour operation because people die at all times of the day. He said the crematories simply don’t work like that.
“We are on a 24-hour schedule and then we have appointments and then the crematories cancel and then the bodies pile up,” he said. “That happened the whole month of April.”
He said they asked the city for help, but “they show up when it’s too late.
“That always happens, they run down here like they are saving something when they should’ve been helping all along,” Cleckley said. “Now we got cops and sheriffs like it’s a crime scene, but there’s no crime, nobody getting arrested.”
The State Department of Health issued the license suspension on May 1 along with a statement from state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker: “Following an investigation by the State Department of Health, I issued an immediate suspension order to the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home in Brooklyn – whose actions were appalling, disrespectful to the families of the deceased, and completely unacceptable.”
Residents of the neighborhood had been complaining that bodies were left haphazardly on palates and in open U-Haul trucks for weeks.
Zucker, who expressed understanding that funeral homes are struggling to keep up with death counts from the novel coronavirus, said that the businesses are still required to adhere to a basic set of sanitary standards — which have already been relaxed as a result of the pandemic.
“Funeral homes have a responsibility to manage their capacity appropriately and provide services in a respectful and competent manner,” the health commissioner said. “We understand the burden funeral homes are facing during this unprecedented time. That’s why the state previously issued an order allowing out of state funeral home directors to assist during this crisis and took steps to ease administrative hurdles.”
As sheriffs deputies packed up, and another body could be seen wheeled past the front door, a family member of a Covid-19 victim stood outside the funeral home wondering what will happen to the body of his brother.
Ronald Blime, 49, said his older brother François Blime, 68, died last week from COVID-19. He said his brother, a father of seven children and grandfather to eight, was not feeling seriously ill until April 23, when he went to the hospital with breathing issues. Blime said his brother died 20 minutes later from complications of coronavirus.
“My brother is in there and I just want to know that we will be able to bury him on Tuesday (May 12),” he gasped. “The funeral is coming up and I don’t know where the body is. They say they still have him, but I don’t know how long they are going to take.
Blime said he was watching the home moving bodies last week as was many shocked residents.
“I was shocked too, they were saying there were over 50 bodies in a truck, even 100. That situation is really bad and my family is worried,” Blime said.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was at the funeral home last week where he sought to create a Bereavement Task force comprised of funeral directors, faith leaders, morticians, hospitals, and cemetery operators, to develop a comprehensive plan for dealing with the uptick in bodies in a respectful way.