GREENWOOD HEIGHTS, Brooklyn (WABC) -- A local cemetery worker describes the struggle to keep up with the mounting death toll caused by COVID-19.
Ali Meawad is a gravedigger at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the days are long and exhausting.
Sometimes Meawad arrives as early as 3 a.m. and stays late just to lessen the load for the next day.
He says sometimes he works 14 or 15 excruciating hours a day.
During normal times it's backbreaking work, but these days what hurts more than the body is the soul.
Due to the pandemic, Meawad has been moved to the crematory, where he performs 20 cremations a day.
That's 20 grieving families he has to watch everyday because of COVID-19. These families have to grieve and mourn from a distance.
Meawad is a bit like a healthcare worker who watches loved ones video chat patients from a hospital bed.
As it turns out, Meawad was a nurse for several years before grave digging.
"We haven't seen anything like this, even September 11th wasn't like this," President of Green-Wood Cemetery Richard Moylan said. "I mean that was shock -- a one-time event. This is just continuing. It's ... calm sadness has just overtaken the place."
The backlog at the cemetery is so overwhelming that even if the number of deaths fell to zero tomorrow, they would need to work at this same grueling pace for an entire month just to clear the backlog.
"The volume of burials and cremations have just been astounding," Moylan said. "Burials are more than twice the norm, cremations are three times the norm and we can't keep up."
As for Meawad, every time he lays a soul to rest he thinks about his wife and 9-year-old daughter with asthma and worries about getting them sick.
But when he looks out at this place, a place where most people see death, he sees something else.
Meawad says he still sees life when people come here.
"Families and people actually come to gather in this place," Meawad said. "It's something for them to say I still remember who you are and I'm still here with you."