ALBANY — As New York's pandemic death toll mounted, grieving relatives often faced frustrating logjams due to legal requirements that an original signature be used on documents authorizing transport of the remains from crowded hospitals.
Legislation that sailed through both houses of the Legislature and has now been signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo rectifies the situation by allowing electronic signatures on funeral and cemetery documents.
David Fleming, legislative director for the New York State Association of Cemeteries, recalled that remains of COVID patients ran into delays in death arrangements because of the physical signature mandate. One example of how the death planning stalled came when a spouse of a patient who died was unable to immediately provide a hand copy of an authorization signature, and ended up being quarantined for COVID-19 or succumbing to the infection.
Another common situation, which was in play even before the pandemic, came when person died in New York while other family members were in Florida or Europe, Fleming said. The relatives had to get the authorizations signed by a witness, and then sent by FedEx back to New York to get the funeral process moving, he noted.
Allowing electronic signatures was already permitted for such documents as mortgages, and the new legislation allows them for the cemetery services, so the documents can be instantly transmitted via a smartphone or laptop.
Fleming said cemetery directors noted a marked increase in families requesting cremations during the pandemic. As the health crisis has begun to ease, he said there is still strong demand for cremations, predicting the number of crematoriums in New York could grow by 20% over the next five years.
New York now has about 50 of the facilities, a number that Fleming said is low for a state with a population of 19 million people.
State Sen. Simcha Felder, a co-sponsor of the electronic signatures bill, said passage of the measure will spare grieving families from "the added stress of bureaucratic red tape" while they are still reeling from the sudden loss of a loved one.
Another measure championed by the cemetery association and approved this year allows the cemeteries to derive income by leasing parcels of land.
"It is in the public interest that cemeteries with surplus land are able to receive income from such land for a period of time without altering the purpose of public cemeteries or negatively impacting the operation of the cemetery and the use of cemetery land," the legislation states.
Many cemeteries are struggling with revenue shortfalls, Fleming noted.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org