Last April, knowing what could come, the District built a secret morgue in preparation for the worst.
A group of volunteers, all sworn to secrecy, worked tirelessly behind the scenes to care for loved ones who passed away from the coronavirus during the District’s hardest hit months.
City officials and the chief medical examiner’s office realized they didn’t have the capacity to care for the coming surge of fatalities.
“And in places like New York, there had been real problems,” said Luke Mullins, the writer of the Washingtonian story about the morgue. “So they decided, ‘Hey, one, we’re gonna, one, take jurisdiction over all the COVID fatalities, and, two, we’re gonna have to create a second, temporary morgue in order to actually process the fatalities.”
The secret morgue’s volunteers were referred to as “caretakers of the dead.” The group of volunteers was made up of city employees, active-duty military members, pre-med students and others. They didn’t all have a background in this type of work, but wanted to help.
“They described it as ‘coalition of the willing,’” Mullins said.
What they did have in common was their response to tragedy. All of them, including Dr. Donell Harvin, a top official at D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency who led the effort, have responded to tragic events at times of need.
Harvin was a fireman on ground zero during 9/11, but for him, this was worse.
“He was able to go home from that,” Mullins said. “This was months of every day, a new tragedy every day.”
Little was known about the virus at the time of the morgue’s opening. The volunteers knew they could potentially be exposed, and yet they showed up every day to pay respect and provide dignity to those who died.
“The folks that do this work professionally, that is so central to their identity, and they work discretion is important to them,” Mullins said. “And they believe if they’re doing their job well, you’ll never even know that that may have existed. And they take pride in that.”