David Drysdale Jr. stood in the hallway of the crematorium his family has run for three generations and took stock of the pandemic’s dead.
He could barely move. The bodies, in cardboard cremation boxes, had overtaken the hallway. He had to cut a path around them.
The refrigerators were long past filled. So was the receiving vault, the moss-covered stone edifice in East Mount Airy’s Ivy Hill Cemetery and Crematory that hadn’t held a body in a century — not since the 1918 flu epidemic swept through the city, leaving devastation in its wake.
In the grip of that crisis, the gravediggers at the historic cemetery could not dig fast enough.
By late April, as the coronavirus continued to extract its toll, Drysdale and his crematorium operators could not keep up with the unrelenting flow of bodies, the line of hearses that snaked down the driveway and through the cemetery’s cresting hills.
They had tried to prepare. They watched the death toll in New York, and knew Philadelphia’s dead would be coming. They cleaned out the old receiving vault, beneath the shade of a red maple tree.
And Drysdale added an extra crew to keep up. But he soon realized there was no keeping up. The cremation machines burned all day, so hot that even in the mornings, after cooling all night, the bricks glowed cherry-red.
Some of the dead were from the same family. A mother and son. A father and son. All of the families were denied the chance to say goodbye.
Drysdale wanted to help grieving families and accommodate funeral directors, who were as overwhelmed as he was. But storing bodies in a crematorium hallway does not afford the dead the dignity he was taught they deserve.
So, standing among the victims of a vicious virus, he decided he had to cap the number of bodies the crematory could accept on any given day at 40. Still a number unlike any he’d seen in his life, and his life has been spent at the cemetery.
“It’s not a production line,” he said last week. “Whether we do 100 [cremations] or we do one, we got to do the right thing. We got to take our time.”
A previous pandemic
Drysdale, 65, started in the family business nearly 50 years ago, in 1973, long ago enough that the old-timers remembered the 1918 pandemic, and told stories about how their shovels were no match for the wave of bodies.
His own family history is there to read among the gravestones. His grandfather Watson Moody rests in a shady grove by the marble mausoleum. Moody got his start digging graves by hand during another calamity that rings suddenly relevant: the Great Depression.
Drysdale hadn’t planned on building a life at the cemetery, but was pulled in by its grand Gothic archway and towering oaks, vibrant azaleas and farmhouse chapel.
“I still love it,” he said, his graying hair and blue eyes showing above a purple cloth face mask. “There’s just a real peace to it.”
His father, David Drysdale Sr., a Korean War veteran, took over the cemetery after Moody retired, and worked until his death from cancer in 2003. Now, amid the chaos of a pandemic, Drysdale still stops by his father’s grave under a pair of oak trees every evening to say goodnight.
There is a fourth generation of the family at Ivy Hill now. Drysdale’s son, David III, works as a groundskeeper.
The cemetery first opened its gates in 1867. Its notable residents include the boxer Joe Frazier, the gospel singer Marion Williams, and the anonymous 5-year-old murder victim from the 1950s known as the Boy in the Box.
But Drysdale’s father impressed upon him that even in a cemetery filled with luminaries, everyone is due the respect of a dignitary.
And that doesn’t change during a pandemic.
“My dad would say everyone is a dignitary to their own family,” he said.
So Drysdale came up with the cap. The numbers were just too much. In normal times, Ivy Hill — which serves funeral homes in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania suburbs, and South Jersey — performs 600 cremations a month.
In April, amid the virus, it surpassed 1,000.
The staff logged each coronavirus death in a black binder. By late April, 328 names bore a highlighted “C.”
In one two-day stretch, 175 bodies arrived at Ivy Hill — 33 in just two hours. Drysdale believes the official death tallies — as of Monday, 1,416 people in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs have died from the coronavirus, according to the state Health Department — must be an undercount.
“Look at us, and we’re just one little place,” he said.
The last responders
Ivy Hill treats every death as a coronavirus death. It is the only way to keep everyone safe. Bodies are boxed and wrapped in plastic. Gloves and masks are worn. Only 10 people may attend graveside burials. Some families slowly drive past the grave site, pausing before driving on.
Many families of coronavirus victims choose cremation in hope of holding a memorial service when the virus subsides, Drysdale said. For now, Ivy Hill’s chapel is closed.
Six steel-and-brick crematorium chambers sit in a stone-walled room behind Ivy Hill’s larger chapel. But only five work now. The wires on one machine melted in April amid the crush of bodies.
“We’re pushing them really to the limit,” Drysdale said, his voice straining over the blasting cooling fans. The machines usually run at an average of 1,850 degrees, he said. Now, never slowing, they burn closer to 2,400. “Because of the volume we were doing, there was no cooldown. We come in the morning, and the machines are still over a thousand degrees.”
Along with gravediggers and morgue workers, Ivy Hill’s crematorium technicians find themselves in unfamiliar position as front-line workers. The “last responders,” they say now.
Like doctors and nurses, they fear bringing the virus home, said Scott Najbrt, an Ivy Hill crematorium technician for over two decades.
”We see the result of it all,” he said. “You see the bodies all stacked up and it hits you, ‘Oh, my God, is there really that many people who have this virus?’ It’s just a lot to see at once.”
While the pandemic’s peak may have passed in Philadelphia, the logjam of bodies remains.
By capping cremations, Drysdale has managed to clear Ivy Hill’s hallways — and the marble slabs of the old vault no longer hold the dead of another pandemic. But still, each morning, his staff readies 40 body boxes for the day’s dead, the daily limit.
On a recent morning, the crematorium was fully booked, as it is through mid-May, a backlog far greater than anything he ever imagined, he said. That day, 26 of the 40 cremations were for virus victims — about steady with the daily rate.
Drysdale watched as crematorium technician Brian Rivers steered a mechanized gurney to a chamber and elevated it, so the body met the opening of the machine. Rivers carefully slid the box inside the chamber, pulling its steel door closed, and pushing a button to begin the cremation.
“Like I said,” Drysdale said, solemnly, “I have never seen anything like this in my life.”