NEW YORK (AP) — During the deadliest days of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, the bodies piled up at a Brooklyn funeral home — and the stench that came with it — at an alarming rate.
Passersby reported that the smell was wafting from rental trucks used to store decomposing remains outside Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home, in a working class section of the borough next to a discount variety store.
What happened next, Cleckley says, made him the scapegoat for an unforeseen crisis — hundreds of COVID-19 deaths a day in New York that overwhelmed funeral homes across the city. Authorities swept in and suspended his license in an episode that made headlines in a city already reeling from other horrors of the pandemic.
Months later, Cleckley, 41, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is still battling to save a livelihood that is “in his blood.”
“I was honestly just trying to help,” Cleckley said of his efforts to make funeral arrangements for far more people than usual. “Now I’m being crucified for it.”
The state Health Department hasn’t been sympathetic. It brought a health code violation case against Cleckley aimed at revoking his funeral home license for good.
The department refused to immediately disclose details of its official allegations and the findings by an administrative judge, which are under review by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. It told the AP it would need to apply for the records under the state’s open records law to see them in advance of Zucker’s final ruling.
Cleckley is also under fire by families who have sued him, alleging he mishandled the remains of loved ones.
Instead of getting respectful treatment, “the remains were desecrated and abandoned, left to fester and rot,” the lawyers for one of the plaintiffs said in a statement. “The horror to these families, who have already been through so much, is unimaginable.”
The scandal has devastated Cleckley, who had a wayward childhood that he turned around by getting into the funeral home business, he said. He got his start when, while working as a funeral home driver, he saw another employee embalming a body.
“At that moment, I realized what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
After getting training, Cleckley started his own funeral home where part of his business was doing outsourced “trade work” for other morticians. That involved embalming and helping make cremation and burial arrangements for bodies delivered to him by other homes with little or no storage space.
It went smoothly for several years until April, when the corpses started coming at a pace he’d never seen before amid uncertainties about the risks of embalming them.
“I embalmed more bodies in that one month than I did in the entire year before,” he said. “It was horrible.”
The bodies kept arriving even after he warned the other homes that crematories and cemeteries were backed up from all the coronavirus deaths, he said. He tried turning his own prospective clients away, but with the crisis in full fury, “I was the last resort for all of these families.”
To deal with the overflow, Cleckley said, he rented the trucks to store bodies on ice until they were to be taken to a crematory. When authorities arrived, they said they found dozens of bodies in the trucks, but Cleckley said that most of them were the responsibility of the other homes.
One of the suits against Cleckley described how one family, after seeing news about the grisly find, frantically tried to get in touch with a Cleckley associate it had hired for arrangements who tried to duck them. When desperate family members finally went to Cleckley’s facility, “they saw bodies in the building – on stretchers, in body bags, wrapped in blankets,” the suit says.
Cleckley said accusations that he desecrated the dead are unfair, given the circumstances.
The health department now threatening to punish him “offered us no assistance, no guidelines, no protocols, no emergency number to call if you get overwhelmed,” he said.
At a hearing, health officials wrongly portrayed him as taking on more than he could handle out of greed, Cleckley said.
“I was trying to help because these people were helpless,” he said. “All of this was done out of compassion.”