The passing of every person reduces me,
As I belong to the human race.
1,000,000 individuals from New York who have been disregarded.
Misplaced, unnoticed, unclaimed, missing, and forgotten. “The most neglected,” “discarded and disregarded,” “desolate, impoverished, and overlooked.”
“An abundance of neglected corpses,” “stacked one on top of the other,” “utterly overlooked and made to seem as though they never were.” “Johns and Janes, buried in the earth, forgotten.”
Since the 1870s, journalists have been recounting the “untold story” of Hart Island, a one hundred acre graveyard situated off the coast of the Bronx.
It consists of green, rolling fields with small white markers, freshly dug brown earth, dry stone walls, woodlands, wetlands and nineteenth century clay ruins surrounded by salt marshes and debris.
This cemetery has been run as an extension of the prison system for the last 150 years, making it challenging to access, which tends to be quite the captivating concept.
The legend of the island prison for the dead has been passed around, a place filled with dismemberment and Civil War artifacts, forgotten in a dirt-covered land that resembles the shape of a tibia and always cloaked in mist.
When I was young and amazed by the revelation, I was reminded of famous poets like John Donne and Dylan Thomas, and the references to Charon and the River Styx seemed to make it the perfect headline.
This past spring, as the coronavirus pandemic pervaded New York City, many people shared similar feelings.
The nation’s death toll reached a hundred thousand, and footage of prisoners in Rikers Island donning white and orange jumpsuits stacking caskets on Hart Island resurfaced, causing an outcry beyond the five boroughs.
News outlets from places like New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, London, New Delhi and Adelaide tied the “mass grave” burials to the virus, bringing attention to the island’s grim history of burying the city’s poor and unclaimed. An essayist characterized those buried as “nobodies”.
Despite all the attention it garnered, the island’s importance to the many living families in New York City was almost overlooked. It is, in fact, the city’s graveyard. In recent years, anywhere from one thousand to twelve hundred New Yorkers have been laid to rest there annually.
Approximately 1 percent of them are John and Jane Does, unless they are not. 40% of those are unclaimed by family, until they are not. It may be difficult to imagine how many of these deceased are forgotten by all.
James J. Farrell declared that “Death is a cultural event,” and people display their values in how they treat it.
When I initially encountered this site, I thought: What does a haven for the neglected dead tell us about New York City? In 2020, I ponder what characterizing thousands of New Yorkers as “forgotten,” again and again, says regarding us.
At the city hearing in 2019, Elsie Soto was seen with her long black hair cascading down her left shoulder and her reading glasses perched on her nose. In her hands, she held a Polaroid photo of a young girl and her dad, both of them wearing broad smiles.
In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, we are unable to meet in person, so I imagine her as she speaks to me on the phone about her father, who passed away when she was ten years old. Now, at the age of thirty-eight, she is a full-time student, an aspiring journalist, and a mother of two.
According to Elsie, her dad, Norbert, was always very concerned for her safety when she was a young child. He even wrote her a letter when she was seven, cautioning her to be careful and giving her tips on how to be secure while going to the beach.
He ended it with “Hugs and kisses, your daddy, Norbert.” Elsie believes he may have been trying to provide guidance and direction for her, as though he knew he wouldn’t be around for much longer. This thought brought tears to both their eyes.
When Norbert Soto passed away from AIDS at the age of thirty-eight, the medical examiner’s office secured a permit to have him laid to rest on Hart Island.
By the middle of March, he was buried in the city cemetery in a plot that was isolated due to apprehension.
Numerous other New Yorkers with AIDS were laid to rest in a similar fashion, with some families being asked to identify their relatives, but unable to alter the course of the burial, while other families were not notified of the death at all.
For years, some of these people looked for their missing family members.
Talking to me, Soto says that she was unable to witness her father’s burial and was unable to accept his death for years afterwards.
She remarks that it had been difficult to come to terms with, and that it’s even harder for those children who were unable to be with their parents in their last moments due to the pandemic.
Melinda Hunt, a Canadian-born artist, was invested in Hart Island and the deceased individuals who were buried there.
In 1991, she created the Hart Island Project and used the Freedom of Information Act to access handwritten ledgers, dates of burial, and plot locations held by New York City.
Her digital memorial, “The Traveling Cloud Museum,” allows the family of those buried there to post stories about the deceased. In 2014, Hunt provided advice to the New York Civil Liberties Union in a federal class action lawsuit to grant visitation rights on the island.
The city settled, and in 2015 the Department of Correction started allowing very restricted visits to the island, but only for immediate family members and by appointment.
In the spring of 2018, three years after Norbert Soto passed away, Elsie Soto and her family members took a journey across the Long Island Sound to see him once again, 22 years after his death.
The DOC greets visitors who have been approved to visit City Island, a quiet residential area located on an island in Pelham Bay. At the pier, the visitors must leave their phones, cameras, and recording devices behind.
On her first visit, Soto recounts that the guards treated her family with little respect. She saw a memorial with a quote from Matthew 5:3 and a number of flowers and statues. Shortly after, they were taken to a prison bus with fifteen other people to her dad’s grave site.
The officers couldn’t tell her exactly where her father’s body was, but they consulted a piece of paper and pointed out his location in an open field.
She had brought a bouquet of yellow roses to lay down, but she was aware that they would eventually die, so she wanted to bring something more lasting.
She placed a heart-shaped rock, which was raw, clay-colored, and larger than the size of her hand, near the place where her loved one rested. Months later, a New York Times article, “Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field,” was released and included a picture of the rock.
In June 2019, the season-two premiere of the FX show Pose had a story about AIDS fatalities and the island. Soto watched to see if Norbert’s plot would be featured.
The two characters come to a TV version of Hart Island, which has a reception desk and a sign-in book. As they traverse the area, they pass by a communal grave with the coffins having numbers instead of names.
The destination is the AIDS plot, and when they arrive, they see heart-shaped rocks everywhere. Billy Porter explains that each of these rocks symbolizes someone buried in the area, and has been left by someone who was close to them.
Soto watches this scene intently and reveals that one of the rocks is hers.
Tears streaming down her face, she said to me, “I’m so touched—we’re finally being listened to. Our narrative is being heard and understood, and those we care about are not ‘forgotten.'”
“I hate when people imply that I have forgotten my father,” she exclaims. “I’ve never forgotten him.”
The issue of managing the dead in cities has been an ongoing challenge since the dawn of civilization. During the last two hundred years, the practice in the United States has been to bury the deceased in beautiful parks with grand memorials.
However, in this day and age, it is becoming increasingly apparent that metropolitan burial grounds are facing a major problem: What can be done when the graves are all filled up?
In London, some have been buried standing up. Others have to share graves that have been reopened and the headstones flipped over and inscribed on the back. Singapore has laws that dictate a maximum lease of fifteen years on a grave site.
In Venice, the time limit is ten years, after which the bones are either moved to a common ossuary or cremated to make space for new occupants. Japan’s cities have avoided this issue as almost everyone is cremated.
In certain regions of the US, cremation is becoming more popular due to limited burial space, increasingly expensive burials, and the fact that people are more likely to travel for a funeral.
At the same time, the “death positive” movement, driven mainly by millennials, is pushing for more natural, eco-friendly burials.
When an event causes a city’s death system to be overwhelmed, such as the coronavirus pandemic with New York, the issues become more prominent.
Despite the difficulty to consider modifications during a crisis, it is also an opportunity to identify the most flawed areas of the system.
In the City That Never Sleeps, cemetery plots have always been in short supply due to the large number of people who die each year (around 50-60K). In June 2020, burial plots were advertised on Craigslist for prices ranging from $1,050 to $20,000.
The post read, “Sorry For Your COVID-19 Timeframe Loss, VERY FAIR PRICE.” The rate of a standard-sized plot in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is more costly than the per-square-foot rate of a Manhattan apartment.
The average expenditure for funeral arrangements in New York City is about $6,000, which is about a tenth of the median household income. Unfortunately, for some New Yorkers, this expense can be a third of their yearly salary.
Given the fact that many Americans cannot afford to pay for an unexpected expense, even of a few hundred dollars, most cities have set up a system to make burial costs accessible to all.
For instance, in Los Angeles County, the deceased are cremated and buried in one plot in the county cemetery, with a single marker.
Additionally, their annual remembrance service includes prayers, songs, and rituals from five different religious traditions, and the public is welcome to attend.
Similarly, Imperial County, east of San Diego, used to bury those unidentified persons found in the desert at the US-Mexico border, but due to lack of space, the public administrator now cremates the remains and scatters the ashes in the sea off the coast of Southern California.
In other areas, such as Washington, DC and Baltimore, the dead are interred in unmarked plots in municipal cemeteries.
Moreover, if a body is left unclaimed for too long, it becomes “city property”, and may be offered to medical students or funeral directors in training before being laid to rest in a municipal cemetery.
In Chicago, the relatives have sixty days to take action, while in Baltimore, they have seventy-two hours.
When civic systems fail to meet the needs of citizens, private citizens often come together to provide assistance. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, St. Luke Foundation for Haiti offers funeral services to those who cannot afford them.
Meanwhile, in Bethune, France, members of the Confrerie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi de Bethune provide capes, white gloves, and Napoleonic bicorn hats to bury the dead regardless of their financial situation.
Similarly, in San Diego, a group of passionate benefactors and volunteers come together every year to provide cemetery plots and funerals for babies who were buried by the city.
As part of this, Eagle Scouts craft tiny pinewood caskets and Knights of Columbus dress in sashes and plumed chapeaus and carry swords.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, cities provide for cremations and burials and organize eenzame uitvaarten(“lonely funerals”), given the potential lack of family or friends in attendance.
Though the funeral may be isolated, and it is occasionally possible that the deceased may not be identified at the time of death (as is the case with approximately fifteen individuals in both Amsterdam and New York each year), the Dutch are not so quick to assume abandonment.
When applying for the role of city poet in Groningen, Bartelomeus Frederik Maria Droog determined it would be a good responsibility to create a personalized poem for each burial in the city.
He explains that “even though I don’t believe in God or the afterlife, it’s human to give a goodbye from society to this person.”
Droog further states that while people send cards when a baby is born, the same should be done when somebody dies – a kind of ritual to say farewell, without the religious implications. His intention is not to ensure the deceased’s soul goes to a next place, but to include them in the human family.
As he speaks over Skype, he translates the concluding part of a poem he wrote for “deceased male” with case number 02010067. This person was discovered in a canal in a condition that made it impossible to recognize him.
The ground will eventually envelop you
The world will consume you
Just as it does with everything it has provided
And it will never forget you.
In New York City, approximately one-fifth of the population lives in poverty. The process of “indigent burials” is complex and involves multiple organizations, such as the police department, county public administrator, and Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
If a decedent’s next of kin cannot be located after a certain period of time, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner may arrange for a burial on Hart Island. Despite this, not all of the city’s poor or those without living family members are buried here.
Millionaire philanthropists, opera costume designers, and even the child actor who voiced the lead in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated film Peter Pan have all been laid to rest on Hart Island.
The Queens County Public Administrator is reported to have made arrangements with local funeral homes for cremation if the estate has sufficient resources. On the other hand, Staten Island has its own cemetery for municipal burials.
An informational pamphlet on the Richmond County Public Administrator’s website clarifies that unlike other boroughs, it does not “assign indigents to a ‘common grave’;” rather, it has established “a more humane approach,” with burials “in a place that can be visited.”
A range of organizations provide funeral and burial aid to numerous distinct groups, including
churchgoers, US military veterans, victims of crime, railroad employees, babies, Native Americans, volunteer firefighters, blind individuals, professional actors, foreign-born citizens, and more.
Furthermore, the Human Resources Administration of the city supplies financial reimbursement grants to supplement the expenditure of funeral arrangements. As for those who select or settle for a Hart Island burial, the city takes charge of all expenses.
Therefore, for hundreds of families annually, this is the most suitable or only option available.
It was a warm and foggy Thursday morning in late summer of 2018 when I, along with 11 other people, boarded the Michael Cosgrove ferry from City Island.
We were all required to sign a liability waiver and receive a xeroxed information packet about the island’s history before departure. We were then taken to Hart Island gazebo and allowed to stand around for an hour or so before being escorted back.
Despite being confined to a small area, the island felt serene and open; the East River lapping at the mile-long riprap coast, osprey soaring above, and a caretaker informing me of the wild animals inhabiting the island.
During my visit, 16 burials and two disinterments were taking place, carefully tucked away from view. I thought to myself that such a place would be a peaceful place to be buried.
I was quite intrigued by the disinterments. For families like Soto’s who were not given any options at the time of death, or those needing more time to sort things out, the city provides grants to exhume and transfer the remains of their beloved from the island.
Approximately between 30 and 40 disinterments are conducted every year–which is about 3% of the average yearly burials on the island.
I asked the Rikers officer, “How do you know where the body is when you locate the plot?” He said, “You measure it out,” referring to the system used in Civil War battles, which is still utilized today. “As long as your feet aren’t too small.
When you open the ground, if there’s no wood left and the bones are all together, forensics takes them all. They do the sorting.”
Pondering what would propel an individual to attempt to rescue their deceased relative’s remains, it dawned on me that funerals could be a way other cities honor and distinguish those who were buried municipally.
Since the 1940s, New York has been lacking in terms of offering funeral services at its city cemetery, which elicited a shocked response from Bart Droog upon being informed.
During the spring of 2020, the media has frequently focused on the Burials of Hart Island with an emphasis on the decomposition of the bodies and the handling of their boxes by prisoners.
However, there has been no mention of the human family or the absence of any type of ceremony, ritual, funeral, or post-burial communal activity.
In Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, the author argues that societies and their dead have a reciprocal influence on each other.
When I spoke with him on the phone at his home near Berkeley, California, Laqueur explained that death marks our personal and social history, and that we often define generations and families by the birth and death dates of our predecessors. He said, “Death is the end of a story, and we all want to believe that our presence on earth has made a difference to someone. We crave some form of ceremony or acknowledgment.”
He explains that funerals are supposed to be a form of inclusion. However, his research showed that this is not always the case. His 1983 paper, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals,” discusses how in 18th century England, funerals for the poor became a sign of exclusion from society.
These so-called “pauper funerals” were seen as both a terrifying thought and a deeply offensive act towards the deceased’s survivors.
This practice was rooted in a long history of European cultures mistreating the bodies of criminals and traitors. James Boyden describes these occurrences as “cautionary deaths,” and as cities expanded, these rituals demonstrated that marginalization did not cease with death.
The impact of death and how the dead are handled in a city is intensified due to the great quantity, density, and visibility. Even if they don’t know each other, neighbors are connected through the urban environment of smells, sights, and sounds.
Visiting a grave is more than an individual act, but a way to connect with a shared history and remember what has been lost. Furthermore, saying the names of the dead or attending a memorial service can be an act of politics.
On the other hand, stopping someone from doing these things can also be a political act. Robert Pogue Harrison discussed the cruelty of the ancient cultures that separated families from the dead in The Dominion of the Dead, saying that not being allowed to grieve in this way was worse than the initial grief itself.
Elsie Soto’s initial trip to her father’s grave at Hart Island was long overdue, and she made several more visits after that.
Each experience was better than the last, including one special day when the sun came out just as she arrived, making her wish she could have laid out a picnic blanket. On the most recent occasion, the DOC even provided flowers for people to leave if they wanted to.
Nevertheless, undocumented New Yorkers and those who may not wish to or be able to reveal their identities to a correction officer have no access to the island at all.
At a 2019 hearing to push for legislation that would give New Yorkers and visitors free access to Hart Island grave sites, Ydanis Rodriguez, a New York city council member, commented that “the most progressive city in the nation [has been] denying [people] the right to pay their respects.”
Thousands of people and several generations have been refused recognition. Hart Island’s role is to oversee the deceased of the city and its underlying meaning is to show the living that certain New Yorkers exist, yet are treated like they do not.
To gain insight into this, one must familiarize themselves with the city.
Viscount James Bryce, a British historian, addressed the National Housing Association in 1913 to explain why large cities are a great evil.
He pointed out the lack of nature, the tension between people in a densely populated area, the mental strain from the constant noise and activity, and the social stratification that can occur.
Bryce argued that neighborliness is not necessary in a great city, as opposed to small communities, where it is shared by the rich and the poor.
In the year 1730, while the population of New York was 8,622, a small portion of the citizens, 140 white men, held nearly half of all the property.
One third of the people were living in poverty. Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows in their book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 explain that by 1800, the top 20% possessed nearly 80% of the city’s wealth, with the lower half owning less than 5%.
In various cities, from Paris to Glasgow to London and New York, this same disparity had been occurring for centuries. Laws were even enacted to try and remove “Vagabonds and Idle Persons that are a Nuisance & Common Grievance of the Inhabitants” from the city.
However, the urban growth was not able to be stopped and the population multiplied by four between 1790 and 1820, and then again by the mid-1800s. Half of New Yorkers were new arrivals, with no money.
Economist Henry George calculated that the population would amount to 160 million by 2000 if the rate of growth carried on. He concluded that “Such a city is impossible”.
The industrialization of the United States caused many workers and their families to migrate to cities with limited living conditions. Their labor was cheaply purchased, leaving them constantly fatigued and unable to acquire sufficient resources.
This system made it nearly impossible to climb the socioeconomic ladder, which was ironically referred to as “the American dream.”
The affluent few viewed the lower social classes as a danger to the public’s well-being due to their presence.
Those in poverty were referred to as “lazy, destructive and unintelligent”; “needy, exploitative, and polluting;” associated with social wrongdoings that were “communal,” “fruitful,” and “inherited,”
All according to the leaders of the organizations that were supposedly constructed to assist them, from the Charity Organization Society of New York City to the Association for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Poor.
At the time of the printing of Jacob Riis’s work, How the Other Half Lives, near the end of the nineteenth century, three quarters of the people living in New York City were in tenements.
Riis, a photographer, social reformer and observer, attempted to bring attention to what he called “the foul core of New York” (which was before the city gained its nickname “the big apple”).
His idea of charity was similar to the strategies used by local agencies: “It is a dreary old truth that those who would fight for the poor must fight the poor to do it”.
In order to solve this problem, there was a long effort to demolish the overcrowded tenements, which were home to immigrants, laborers and families. The only thing left was to find a new place for the residents to live.
Louis L. Seaman, the leader at Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island Hospitals, discussed in his essay “The Social Waste of a Great City” that men and cities develop, waste, and die in the same manner.
Cities tend to push away the undesirable elements, shipping them to the outskirts, exiling them.
Over the centuries, municipalities have utilized islands for this purpose, such as.
The quarantine hospitals, penal colonies, and places of banishment near Ecuador, Panama, South Africa, Tasmania, French Guyana, Japan, Canada, Venice, and Cannes. Additionally, Alcatraz and Australia were employed for similar purposes, though few of these are still formally used as places of banishment.
The island geology of New York City has both confined it and provided a great benefit. In the vicinity of Manhattan lie thousands of acres of other isles.
Accounts from the past have praised their beauty, while others have suggested that some were made from the hoofprints of Satan being pursued across the Long Island Sound. These parcels of land happen to be ideal spots for banishment.
The financial and structural resources of New York City were not enough to assist the individuals labelled as “social waste” however, the leaders of the city had a moral responsibility to do so. This led to the formation of the Department of Public Charities and Correction in 1860.
According to Stacy Horn in Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in Nineteenth-Century New York, this blended department of charity work and law enforcement would manage all the outcasts of society. Their jurisdiction would be the other isles.
By the end of the 19th century, the islands around New York provided homes to factories which produced fertilizer, rendered fish and fat, and turned hog bristle into brushes.
On Barren Island, in the aptly named Dead Horse Bay, the people living there would scavenge the discarded items according to their hierarchical rank. The lowest were rag pickers, then paper and metal scavengers, and the most affluent were bone sorters.
Islanders accommodated a variety of people, including immigrants, refugees, “lunatics,” and prisoners of all ages. Almshouses, workhouses, and hospitals for the epileptic, expectant mothers, and those suffering from paralysis existed.
Many unfortunate individuals were sent by boat, sometimes in the dead of night with the help of law enforcement, to quarantine colonies for typhoid, smallpox, and yellow fever, from which few ever returned.
During “smallpox raids” in places such as Harlem and Little Italy, children displaying symptoms were removed from their parents’ arms.
One example is Mary Mallon, an Irish cook popularly known as “Typhoid Mary,” who was forcibly held in exile on North Brother Island in the East River for twenty-six years due to her chronic typhoid fever.
The less well-off were not only overlooked in life, but also in death. Potter’s fields, a reference from the Bible  for burial grounds for the poor, were initially established in Lower Manhattan.
As the city expanded, Potter’s fields were forced outward to Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Wards Island, Randall’s Island, and eventually, in 1869, to Hart Island. This is where the “pauper funeral” was officially implemented.
At cemeteries, the deceased draw attention to the fact that the living must also eventually pass away, as is reflected in the saying, “As I am now, so you must be.”
Hart Island’s cemetery brings this idea to another level by revealing the truth about how those who were exiled in life are also exiled in death.
In 1981, The New York Daily News praised the Rikers inmates’ burial detail on Hart Island, suggesting that it was a way for the prisoners to give back to society for the grace it has shown them.
Since 2015, when the local cemetery began permitting family visits, its penal-like appearance was perceptible to those connected to the deceased.
Parents of Brooklyn College student Charles Guglielmini, whose knapsack was spotted near the Queensboro Bridge.
As well as the brother and daughter of actor Paul Alladice, who searched for him for years prior to Melinda Hunt’s FOIA requests to generate a digital Hart Island directory, and friends of Lewis Haggins Jr., who himself was homeless and established the Harlem-based advocacy group.
Picture the Homeless (the gazebo was constructed by the group he co-founded) and Elsie Soto and her family, all understand the notion that being interred in the city is meant to be a courtesy for those who cannot afford a funeral or plot, yet instead feels like a form of punishment.
In 1895, the Department of Public Charities and Correction was divided, yet the structures that had been created to criminalize poverty and isolate those deemed social outcasts still stand, and are even more firmly entrenched.
The interrelated bureaucracies and processes that collect the poor and drive them to the outskirts of the city have merely advanced. Homeless shelters, mental health facilities, landfills, penitentiaries, and the city graveyard persevere on its islands.
In a May 2020 NPR Fresh Air interview, Time magazine journalist W. J. Hennigan spoke of his experience covering the death industry’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
He likened a makeshift morgue to an “Amazon fulfillment center” for bodies, saying: “No one anticipates their life concluding in such a way–where they are stored in a refrigerated trailer in a marine terminal in Brooklyn… The number of these trailers across New York is two hundred; a sight that is very grim.”
Hennigan was deeply affected by the magnitude of death he saw, but it is a city’s job to be prepared for a mass death event, such as the H5N1 Bird Flu outbreak in 2008.
New York City created a 93-page “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan” for the occasion and, in the spring of 2020, many of those measures were carried out without alteration.
Even with a plan in place, the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming more and more apparent. The death rate in the city had doubled and burials on Hart Island had increased fivefold.
The promise of control people had assumed they would have over the burial and commemorative process had all but disappeared. To make matters worse, a crematory wall had collapsed due to overuse and the National Guard had to be called in to help process bodies.
Funeral directors were so inundated with work that they stopped answering their phones. The traditional gatherings of mourning which usually bring closure and comfort had either been postponed, canceled or live-streamed, only furthering the sense of separation that had been forced upon us.
Amidst the current cultural breaking point, Hart Island has become the most popularly searched graveyard, symbolizing death in this pandemic.
With the deadly virus appearing to be a looming threat, the prospect of being buried in Hart Island’s trenches has become a fear that lingers in everyone’s mind.
Melinda Hunt has been working for almost three decades to give the cemetery on Hart Island a more humane presence, although it often elicits a breathless, macabre type of attention.
Hunt expresses her opinion to me on the phone in May, conveying her disappointment in the negative perception of the island’s interment process which she feels is going very well in these trying times.
“Having these customary rituals can bring a lot of solace,” she states. “But, it’s not required to be preserved or to have a dedicated grave.” However, she acknowledges the embarrassment some families may feel if they do not possess those items.
Hunt is aware of individuals who feel uncomfortable discussing their experience interring a relative in Hart Island.
Elsie Soto is determined to include these families in her private Facebook group in an effort “to demonstrate to people that Hart Island is a tranquil and serene place.”
Hunt just wishes they wouldn’t stumble upon the April 2020 article in The New Yorker titled “The Transformation of Hart Island,” which paints an unpleasant picture of what the burial process actually looks like.
She asked me to bring up her most recent project, a drone video of the burials from the start of April 2020, from Vimeo.
As I watched the video, I saw sixteen men in uniform, forming a line and burying three feet of fresh, dark soil over plywood. “It looks like a well-organized process,” Hunt said.
The burials are not only chemical-free and environmentally friendly, but also free for New Yorkers in mourning, and are being conducted even though the death-industrial complex of the city is in disarray. She paused, asking: “Is there a difference if the bodies are two inches or two feet apart? Does it matter if each box is a grave, and we know where each grave is, if they are two feet or two inches apart?”
Hunt was the first to collaborate with a drone photographer to document the burials in the city.
Vincent Mingalone, a florist who had been imprisoned for six months in Rikers for disregarding a court order and had assisted with the Hart Island burial from late 2019 to February 2020, narrated a five-minute piece.
His solemn yet comforting words brought further detail and complexity to the process and the “Hart Island crew” who managed it. He remarked, “I’m uncertain if they will be able to acquire the inmate labor they had before.
A lot of inmates with minor offenses–who I was amongst–were all released due to the pandemic.” The image faded to black. Hunt was aware that without inmates to do the burials, the city would need to recruit contract workers.
She could tell, by comparing her footage to the drone footage obtained by other sources later in the month, that the city had already done so.
For her, this has been a triumphant moment. The conclusion of Mingalone’s video is brimming with expectations.
This also indicates a major shift: In December 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City adopted a law that will move Hart Island from the Department of Corrections jurisdiction to the Department of Parks and Recreation, to be completed by 2021.
The legislative package includes bills that would help finance development, reform the burial procedure, more effectively commemorate those buried there, and increase access for visitors.
When the shift is completed, the city cemetery will no longer be under the control of prisons since its beginning.
Hunt, along with other advocates, including Councilman Rodriguez and the chairman of the health council committee, Mark Levine, have been striving to achieve this accomplishment for many years.
At a 2016 hearing about the transfer, Levine provided a description of the Cemetery, which is owned and operated by the city, to the members of the City Council, most of whom had not been there before.
From my own personal knowledge, I can attest to what a remarkable area Hart Island is. During the Civil War it was a POW camp, then a workhouse for boys, and eventually a drug rehab center.
There is a monument to world peace located there, and in stark contrast, two Cold War missile silos just a few feet away. This hearing should make you want to go and see Hart Island to experience its incredible history.
Green-Wood Cemetery is widely known as an attraction for history buffs and bird watchers due to its Revolutionary War historic site and its inclusion on the Civil War Discovery Trail.
Additionally, it has been registered as a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System and designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior in 2006. Hart Island could also possess all of these qualities, if New York allowed it.
Despite its association with the mad, criminal, sick, and poor, it is hard for Hart Island to be perceived positively. When Hunt revealed her drone video, the response was not what she expected.
The New York Post took the video, and mixed it with eerie music instead of Mingalone’s narration.
Subsequently, news networks sent out their own drones to record similar burials; processes that had remained unchanged for centuries since the names and burial coordinates were recorded in handwritten ledgers and the plots measured by human paces.
Thus, these sites can be found again. Recently, with many deaths caused by COVID-19, everyone has wanted to see the burials for themselves.
One must become accustomed to Hart Island, since Hunt explains that “most people who contract COVID-19 will be buried there.”
Is it feasible that individuals from wealthier backgrounds may slip through the cracks and find themselves interred in Hart Island, as many have been speculating since the outbreak of news reports about the island?
Probably, since this has been occurring for centuries because of organized designs. Now, though, the virus is devastating these communities and thousands of people are being killed in a short amount of time.
During the spring, the virus was disproportionately killing Black and Latino New Yorkers at twice the rate of white New Yorkers. In public housing like Far Rockaway and Carnasie-Flatlands, death rates tripled the city average.
Simultaneously, an economic downfall is forcing more people into poverty and they are unable to pay for a burial elsewhere than Hart Island.
So people from around the world are observing–but not merely to call for improved access to rights or to give tribute through a poet’s words. Rather, they are craning their necks to view the tragic trenches and the austere coffins.
To use terminology associated with war, like mass graves. To focus on the degrading state of a decaying body, and the appalling nature of a solitary burial, and to think, I don’t want to ever experience that. On Hart Island, the dread of death and dying is blended with an aversion of the destitute.
It is part and parcel of the human experience to be afraid of death; that of the ‘other’ is part of the colonialist structure. This fear of Hart Island does nothing to confront or dismantle the structures that cast people on the margins, instead it just continues to marginalize them.
As Melinda Hunt and other advocates are trying to communicate, to transform it into a place of rest for all, not through any particular gentrification or privatization, but rather by making the urban burial a more dignified one, would be a rebellious act.
Presently, the only way for those who are registered to get to Hart Island is via City Island. The New York Times depicted it in 1982 as “distanced from the rest of the Bronx and its issues due to Long Island Sound”.
At the 2016 city council listening, Jimmy Vacca, the councilman who represents City Island, promised that as long as he is around, there will be no plans to turn Hart Island into a “tourist attraction”, which would have welcomed birdwatchers, history buffs, and New Yorkers who want to pay tribute to the deceased.
For a long time, City Islanders have opposed any attempts to develop Hart Island or bring it back to life. This has stirred debate and resulted in suggestions that the City should place its burial and cremation services somewhere else.
Even journalists have become involved, calling for an end to the practice and linking that to ending the injustice of the Hart Island system.
For a lot of individuals with family members interred there, to abandon the cemetery would be to give up on the island, in contrast to vowing to improve it.
According to Soto, ceasing burials on Hart Island “would not be equitable to the whole city,” she explains to me. “Relocating them farther away would make it more difficult for individuals to get to. It’s not right.”
Soto wishes to be buried upon her passing, rather than cremated, as she finds it more natural and appealing. “You’re always at a place,” she states in regards to the burial.
At present, she is devising a proposition to get a memorial built at the AIDS plot alongside Hart Island, where her father is buried:
“It would be a tribute to what they have had to experience–their segregation in life and death, and how that influences the families who are still living,” she stated. This could be the ceremony, the honor, the recognition that Hart Island families haven’t been able to experience.
She remembers her father fondly, she explains. “No matter what, he will remain at Hart Island. I will go to him and pay my respects to him as long as I can.”
After throwing the coins into the temple, Jesus left and committed suicide. The chief priests, however, kept the silver pieces and declared it to be an unholy donation since it was derived from the death penalty.
Consequently, they discussed it and decided to buy the potter’s field to use as a burial ground for foreigners. (Matthew 27:5-7, English Standard Version)