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'Overwhelmingly hectic' time at Hempstead Town cemetery

Mourners gather at a small graveside service at

Mourners gather at a small graveside service at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

At Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale, the number of burials over the past month has been overwhelming.

Hempstead Town workers have seen nearly double the number of interments this month compared with the same time last year. Up to 15 burials a day are sometimes scheduled as the COVID-19 crisis strains the only town-operated cemetery for Hempstead residents.

“It’s overwhelmingly hectic,” said Patricia Lima, the cemetery’s acting director. “We are keeping up. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to watch the families. I grieve for them.”

From March 16 to April 14, the cemetery has conducted 118 burials, including more than 25 burials this week alone. The cemetery had conducted 65 burials over the same period in 2019.

The cemetery covers 158 acres and is the only known town-operated cemetery on Long Island. The cemetery is generally limited to town residents and includes the remains of 100,000 people, some from the Civil War era. 

The cemetery recently agreed to sell two grave plots for nonresidents. Officials said the cemetery has enough space to take more deceased, but had to open a new section to spread out burials.

“The amount of grief taking place every single day at our cemetery alone is astronomical,” Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin said. “When you compound that with a grieving family who might not be able to have a family graveside, it’s taken a toll on these people and it’s taken a toll on the employees under these dire circumstances.”

Lima said the past two weeks have been particularly difficult as deaths have started to mount. The town has seen about 8,350 positive cases of COVID-19, and Nassau County has recorded 1,057 deaths.

Families are coming to purchase burial plots because other private cemeteries have been backed up or families have had difficulty making arrangements at a funeral home. The town's burials run between $3,800 to $4,300, which are about half the cost of some private cemeteries.

Staff members are only scheduling burials for the week ahead and have had to reschedule funerals to accommodate new deaths, such as married couples and siblings who recently died and are to be buried together.

Most funeral homes are not allowing families any visitations there or at the cemetery. Graveside services are limited to 10 people because of worries of spreading coronavirus, Lima said. Family members have to wait in their cars while coffins are placed at the grave site and are only able to approach after cemetery workers have walked away. After the families leave, coffins are lowered into the ground and covered.

The staff of 14 ground workers and four office staff have been supported with nine parks employees to help cut grass and move dirt with two additional payloaders. Workers are trying to dig as many graves the night before, but are often working extra hours and forgoing breaks to meet the task. They are receiving regular pay and are working in rotating shifts. 

“The pressure is on,” Lima said. “For the men in the field, it’s taken a toll on them. They’re tired and frustrated and working in a hectic environment.”

Hempstead Councilman Anthony D’Esposito said the cemetery workers deserve to be recognized with other front-line responders and health care workers who help manage the crisis.

“There’s a core group at that cemetery that has literally been in the trenches every day,” D’Esposito said. “It’s not easy, but it’s their job. It’s a group that gets forgotten and deserves recognition.”

The Town of Hempstead's Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale

Burials from March 16 to April 14, 2019: 65

Burials March 16 to April 14, 2020: 118

100,000 are buried there, including those from the Civil War era