St. Louis man helps bury poor and unclaimed COVID-19 victims on New York’s Hart Island

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A St. Louis man helped prepare those killed by COVID-19 for burial on the notorious Hart Island. He said the historic burial ground is more than a potter’s field. And, he has a warning for the St. Louis area.

Before New York City reopened for business, it was the hotspot for coronavirus infections and one of the first under statewide shelter-in-place orders.

“They saw a marked spike in suicides, overdoses, the things that one can expect in a long-term quarantine,” said funeral director Dan Flynn of New York City.

So, he went there in April 2020.

He was part of the National Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. He helped prepare bodies for Hart Island, where the poor and unclaimed are often buried. The Daily Mail reported that COVID-19 victims were buried in mass graves and unmarked boxes.

“I was quite frankly, a little enraged,” Flynn said of when he heard the report. “I had a marker in my hand.”

Melinda Hunt is director of “The Hart Island Project.” She said there was also outrage over footage of prison labor, that had been used for decades.

“It was shot April 2nd, which was the last day of inmate labor,” she explained. “We transferred jurisdiction of Hart Island on December 4, 2019. So, inmate labor was in the process of ending.”

Flynn said, no one can take any pictures while the caskets are prepared for Hart Island. That is out of respect. Still, that can leave many people confused about how the bodies are treated.

“The general population has no idea, really, the care that goes into every one of those cases,” he said. “The city cases needed to be fingerprinted, photographed, catalogued, put in the computer system, and then they are placed into the wooden caskets.”

That is in case a family wants to retrieve their loved one’s remains.

Flynn said he was not allowed to go with the dead to Hart Island. As he watched the trucks take those people away, he felt that he had done right by the hundreds of families with a loved one in those caskets.

“Every person, whether identified, unidentified, rich, poor, everybody, was treated with the same care and respect.”

Hunt knew Dan was not from New York, but she said he embodied the mission of Hart Island.

“I hope every city is so lucky as to get people like Dan. Families need to know that the bodies of their loved ones are being handled with respect and care.”

That care is there, even with thousands dying from COVID-19 in New York. Flynn pointed out each body has to go through some sort of funeral home.

“Those family mortuaries in New York are just being overwhelmed to the extent you can’t believe. I think the end result is that the families are going to have to wait months for their funeral or to receive their loved one’s ashes back.”

Flynn lived in California, but is on his way back to St. Louis, where he volunteered for Bellefontaine Cemetery. For this COVID crisis, he said there is a nationwide volunteer list.

“And, I’m on that list as well. I might go back.”

Flynn said the St. Louis Archdiocese often buries the unidentified and poor. He also says we need to listen to health officials. Hopefully, we can avoid the same overwhelming number of COVID-19 deaths in this area.

To learn more about the Hart Island Project, visit

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