FLATLANDS, BROOKLYN — First came the smell — a stench so overwhelming a passerby complained. Then the grim discovery — about 50 bodies, some decomposing, stacked inside rented trucks parked outside an apparently overwhelmed Flatlands funeral home.
Now, the outcry over the situation uncovered Wednesday at Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home is rising.
"Absolutely unacceptable," said Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday. "I have no idea in the world how any funeral home could let this happen."
How exactly Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home started storing bodies on ice in rented trucks is now a question for the New York Department of Health.
It appears the home resorted to doing it after it was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed at least 12,774 people in New York City as of April 30, officials said.
New York City funeral homes have struggled since late March.
The city set up temporary morgues. Hospitals used refrigerated tractor trailers to cart away multiple bodies at a time, sometimes loading them in public view on the sidewalk. Crematoriums have been backed up. Funeral directors across the city have pleaded for help as they have run out of space.
The Flatlands funeral home's freezer stopped working amid it all, the New York Times reported. Andrew T. Cleckley, the funeral home's owner, told the Times he was overwhelmed by the pandemic and used the trucks for overflow storage after he filled his chapel with more than 100 bodies.
“I ran out of space,” he told the Times. “Bodies are coming out of our ears.”
But de Blasio expressed no sympathy during a Thursday news conference. He said his strong impression is that funeral homes, while overwhelmed, know there is support.
The Flatlands funeral home situation appears "aberrant," he said.
"Why on earth did they not either alert the state or go to their NYPD precinct and ask for help?" he said. "It's unconscionable for me."
City Department of Building officials in 2019 issued a violation at the funeral home's Utica Avenue address, according to records. The reason: "Observed occupancy as a funeral home, contrary to certificate of occupancy."
The building's occupancy was listed as an auto shop, the records show.
Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner, said during a Thursday news conference that the funeral home could face fines and inspections.
"We are investigating that funeral home," he said.
Abandoning, neglecting, abusing or failing to treat a dead human body with dignity with respect is a misconduct violation under public health law, according to the state health department.
“An investigation by order of the State Health Commissioner has been initiated to immediately address reports of these unacceptable conditions to ensure public health and restore dignity to the decedents," read a health department statement. "Funeral homes and morgues must be accountable for their actions or lack thereof, and we will do everything under our authority to protect health and safety."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at the same news conference as Zucker, piled on the criticism.
"Obviously, the funeral home shouldn't have done it," he said.
Workers in protective gear Wednesday moved the bodies from the rented trucks, which included a U-Haul, to a larger, refrigerated truck.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams went to the scene on Wednesday evening. He told the Daily News, "While this situation is under investigation, we should not have what we have right now, with trucks lining the streets filled with bodies."
Later, Adams took to Twitter to express sympathy for families who had bodies in the home.
Patch editor Kathleen Culliton and the Associated Press contributed to this report.