David Penepent walked into the back chapel of a funeral home in Queens on Thursday and surveyed a scene unthinkable before the coronavirus epidemic. Thirty people had been laid out in the chilled room, the bodies held in boxes made of cardboard and wood with “handle with extreme care” printed on the sides in bold, green letters.
One by one, Mr. Penepent, an associate professor of mortuary science, and two of his students wheeled the bodies out on church trucks, first lining them up in the hallway, then bringing them to two vans parked out front. With the help of the home’s staff, they gently laid the boxes in the back of one of the vehicles, the first step in a long journey to a crematory outside the state.
“This is not just moving remains — this is handling people’s loved ones,” Mr. Penepent said. “And you have to do it with care and compassion, respect and dignity.”
Since early April, Mr. Penepent, 57, and his students have been transporting decedents from overwhelmed funeral homes around New York City to crematories in places as far as Pennsylvania and Vermont, helping grieving families and taking some of the pressure off a system strained by the epidemic.
He calls the operation “Hands with A Heart.”
“It’s a godsend,” said Joe Neufeld Sr., the owner of the Gerard J. Neufeld Funeral Home in Queens, which is just blocks from Elmhurst Hospital Center in one of the hardest hit areas in the country. “He came out of nowhere to save us.”
New York State has registered more than 14,800 deaths because of the virus, about 70 percent of which are in New York City. Sandwiched between overflowing hospitals and backed up cemeteries, the city’s funeral homes are at maximum capacity, and the cases keep pouring in.
Of the 50 crematories across the state, only four are in the city, and they are struggling to keep up with demand. Slots are booked weeks in advance.
Easter weekend, Hands with A Heart moved about 70 bodies. Last week, using two vans, Mr. Penepent transported 150. This week they expected to take 300.
As the death toll mounted in March, Mr. Penepent began reaching out to trade organizations and funeral directors, offering to transport the dead to crematories in upstate New York and in neighboring states that were not seeing the same deluge of cases.
Mr. Neufeld, who did not know Mr. Penepent but had heard of SUNY’s mortuary science program, said he was initially “leery and unsure how this was going to work.”
The funeral homes remain in charge of removing bodies from hospitals, nursing homes or private residences and working with families to file the lengthy paperwork.
Mr. Penepent gives each decedent a tracking number to monitor the body from the funeral home to the crematory and back again. They only work with the remains of people who have been identified and whose families have given approval.
They have made trips to crematories in Vermont, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The remains have then been shipped back to the funeral homes for families to pick them up.
The New York State Funeral Directors Association and the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association are covering expenses for the trips, Mr. Penepent said.
On Good Friday, John D’Arienzo of D’Arienzo Funeral Home in Brooklyn sent the remains of five people to a crematory in Vermont through Hands with A Heart. The ashes were returned that Monday afternoon — much quicker than the three-week wait the families would have had to endure for a slot at a local crematory.
“Their loved ones are back in Brooklyn, secure and waiting for them to pick them up,” Mr. D’Arienzo said. “And I have nine other families that I am able to help because David lightened my workload.”
That same day, Hands with A Heart took 20 bodies from Mr. Neufeld’s funeral home for cremation out of state. They came again the next day to take 20 more.
Mr. Penepent, an outgoing man with a storehouse of jokes, answers his phone “Dr. Penepent” (he has a doctorate of philsophy) and uses expressions like “We’re all jiggy,” meaning “We are good to go.”
He does not come from a family of funeral directors. His father was a business owner and his mother a factory worker. As a youth, he liked drama and played the violin, a talent his father hoped would become a career.
Mr. Penepent had other ideas. He considered becoming a priest. “It didn’t quite work out — my wife wouldn’t accept it,” he joked. He also thought about becoming a therapist. But when his grandmother died, he noticed how caring and compassionate the funeral director was. He discovered his vocation.
“Funeral directing is spiritual, holy work,” he said. “The families entrust in us their most prized possession: their loved one. And that is sacred.”
Mr. Penepent got his license in 1993. The next year, he was a young director at The Leonard Memorial Funeral Home in Glen Ellyn, Ill., when a Chicago-bound airplane crashed in Roselawn, Ind., about 90 miles south of his town, killing 68 people on board.
Volunteers were called in to aid with recovery efforts. Mr. Penepent said he spent a week working at a makeshift morgue set up in an armory, processing human remains for identification. It was there that he learned the tracking system he is using today.
Though he wanted to own his own funeral home and bring his three children on board — “I had this whole legacy plan,” he said — they, too, had other ideas. Eventually, Mr. Penepent found a home in SUNY at Canton, where he has worked for the past eight years.
Two of his students, Felicidad Christensen, 21, and Dylan Halmy, 20, have been putting in long days with Mr. Penepent. “If I can handle this, I can handle anything the business might throw at me,” Ms. Christensen said.
At 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, the three had loaded about 30 bodies into one of the vans, which Mr. Halmy, the other student-volunteer, would be driving to Pennsylvania alone.
Mr. Penepent hopped into the other van. From a lunchbox on the seat beside him, he pulled out glassware with homemade Jell-O — strawberry-flavored, topped with Cool Whip. It is his favorite snack, and he had packed a double supply for the road. “This is the thing the kids talk about — ‘He’s quirky,’” he said. “I am quirky, and I love it.”
He and Ms. Christensen had one more pickup that night, which they planned to transport to a crematory in Connecticut early the next morning. Then it would be back to the city, where the work would start all over again. It would be exhausting, but Mr. Penepent said he did not mind.
“The only thing I want is to know that families who are grieving are able to put their loved ones to rest and that we can bring a little bit of closure to a very tragic situation,” he said.