SCHENECTADY — With one stroke on a touchscreen tablet, the furnace roared to life with a whoosh, almost like a jet engine.
James Carpenter watched the temperature gauge climb.
Moments earlier, a minivan had pulled into the bay of the crematory at Vale Cemetery and unloaded its cargo, which Carpenter carefully wheeled into a cooler.
Once the temperature reached 1,650 degrees, Carpenter retrieved the cardboard casket, examined the paperwork, wheeled it over, opened the door and carefully cast the box into the soft orange glow, where it was instantly engulfed in flames.
As the coronavirus pandemic surges and officials warn of dark days ahead, Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery is again poised to become a critical cog in the wheel in assisting downstate funeral directors in disposing of final remains.
Mass casualties stressed the system last spring as the virus ravaged New York City, and a New York Times article painted a grim portrait of a city struggling with a surplus of bodies and nowhere to put them.
In Queens, funeral director Patrick Kearns watched the backlog at crematories climb and the time between appointments grow further and further apart.
In the meantime, the death count soared, with as many as 10 families reaching out to him each day.
“I could not take in any more remains until I knew when we could cremate them,” Kearns said.
There simply were not enough retort furnaces in the New York City area to handle the influx, which hit nearly 800 daily deaths at the pandemic’s height in early April.
Kearns rented a refrigerated trailer for the overflow, inside which dozens of bodies awaited a solution.
That’s when Vale Cemetery and its crematory became a lifeline.
It began with the relationship forged decades ago between Kearns’ father and Don Bekkering, who got his start working at Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home in the 1960s before relocating to Scotia.
Bekkering called Kearns to check in as the death toll mounted. He did the same on Sept. 11, because he still feels like part of the family.
“He offered his unconditional help,” Kearns said.
Bekkering linked Kearns to Vale, which had recently completed a renovation, adding a third furnace and a drive-thru bay, which funeral directors liked for its convenience, allowing quick drop-offs and space for grieving family members to say their final goodbyes.
It wasn’t long before Bekkering was serving as Kearns’ local representative, signing for the remains and facilitating transfers back and forth.
“It was a daily thing for them,” Bekkering said.
The link, Kearns said, was a godsend. “We definitely could not have gotten through the spring pandemic without the guys at Vale,” he said. “Without [Vale superintendent Clark Adams], I don’t know what we would have done.”
Other funeral homes, including a facility on Long Island, followed, transporting remains in trucks making the nearly three-hour trek.
Vale was simply well-positioned to help. “I felt like I was doing something good,” Adams said.
For some cultures, including Sikhs and Hindus, physically viewing the body entering the retort is an important element of their faith, said Gordon Zuckerman, president of the Vale Cemetery Board of Directors.
“They may even blow their horn to say their final goodbyes,” Zuckerman said.
In normal times, Vale handled an average of seven or eight bodies a day.
At the peak of the spring wave, Kearns was transporting roughly three-dozen per week, and the retorts burned until 3 a.m. some nights.
Keeping each of the furnaces operating (a fourth was added this summer) requires an additional boost of natural gas, which cemetery officials say is unique to facilities in the area, and far less expensive than the traditional propane.
Vale conducted 2,110 cremations last year and is on track to reach 2,700 before year’s end.
As intakes mounted, Carpenter said, he was never stressed but rather kept a cool head and just focused on the job at hand.
“I’m just trying to help loved ones. That’s the way I see it,” said Carpenter, a 19-year veteran of the job.
Carpenter, who serves as lead crematory operator, and Adams take their jobs seriously. Once each body is dropped off, they examine the paperwork and affix each cardboard coffin with a flame-resistant metal tag, which is reviewed again hours after the flames subside and the retort cools, and the cremains are ready for processing.
Bones are ground into a dust and placed into black boxes, again accompanied by the metal tag. Then they’re distributed back to loved ones.
Zuckerman said the quick turnaround is appreciated by families. Last spring, families elsewhere faced wait times as long as 10 weeks before they could retrieve the ashes from some facilities.
“We were able to provide closure to them,” Zuckerman said.
Months have since passed with relative calm. The pandemic faded into the background during the summer and early fall, and the number of deaths gradually tapered to single digits throughout September.
Just one person died of the virus on Sept. 20.
Ten weeks later, the state reported 69 deaths on Saturday and hospitalizations are again creeping skyward, leading Gov. Andrew Cuomo to put hospitals on war footing.
Kearns is watching. And while his weekly numbers are ticking up, he doesn’t envision a return to the high mortality rates. Yet the system will be stressed once the number of daily deaths reaches 100, he acknowledged.
“It’s kind of a pall and dread that hangs over us, when and if we’re going to see a repeat of the spring,” Kearns said.