City, Island

Alexandra Marvar
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Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

—John Donne

A million forgotten New Yorkers. 

Forgotten, forgotten, unclaimed, lost, forgotten. “Most forgotten,” “dumped and forgotten,” “unfortunate, destitute, and forgotten.” “Scores of unclaimed bodies,” “bodies stacked on bodies,” “utterly forgotten and wiped away as if they never existed.” “John and Jane Does, lying in the ground, forgotten.”

Starting in the 1870s, and every year for the past fifteen years, journalists have told and retold the “hidden history” of New York City’s Hart Island, a hundred-acre city cemetery off the coast of the Bronx. Some fields are rolling and green with little white plot markers. Others are fresh brown earth, where individual coffins are buried in communal graves. Where there are not bodies, there are dry stone walls, woodlands, wetlands, and nineteenth-century brick ruins ringed by salt marshes and rubble. For over 150 years, the cemetery has been run as an extension of the prison system, difficult to visit, and this fact tends to capture the imagination.

Stories about it have often circled the same details: An island prison for the dead!Boxes of dismembered limbs and Civil War soldiers and bones all clacking together, forgotten in the dirt on a mostly barren piece of land shaped like the top of what else but a tibia bone, ever shrouded in fog, capitula and patellae protruding from its eroding edges. When I first learned about it, young and wide-eyed, I thought of John Donne. Dylan Thomas. Charon and the River Styx. I couldn’t imagine anything so worthy of a headline.

This spring, while COVID-19 surged through New York City, many others felt the same way. As Americans watched the nation’s death toll approach one hundred thousand, sobering drone footage circulated of Rikers Island prisoners in white and orange jumpsuits stacking caskets on Hart Island, its hidden history rediscovered yet again, but this time it struck a chord that reverberated far beyond the five boroughs. More than one hundred news outlets, from New York and Los Angeles to Vancouver, London, New Delhi, and Adelaide, linked these “mass grave” burials to coronavirus deaths, invoking the island’s dark past as a place for New York’s poor and unclaimed. One essayist called the people buried there “nobodies.”

Even with all that coverage, there was scarce mention of the island’s significance to tens of thousands of living New York City families. It is, after all, the city cemetery. In recent years, between one thousand and twelve hundred New Yorkers have been interred there annually. About 1 percent of them are John and Jane Does, at least until they are not. Two out of five are unclaimed by next of kin, at least until they are not. Anyone who has mourned the death of someone at some point might find it tough to guess how many, if any, are forgotten. 

As scholar James J. Farrell wrote, “Death is a cultural event,” and societies reveal themselves in their treatment of it. When I first read about this place, I wondered: What does an island for the marginalized dead say about the city of New York? In 2020, I wonder what calling thousands of New Yorkers “forgotten,” over and over again, says about us. 

Elsie Soto is thirty-eight, a full-time student, an aspiring journalist, and a mother of two. In footage of her at a city hearing in May of 2019, advocating for Hart Island families, her long black hair falls over her left shoulder against her black suit jacket, her reading glasses lean forward on the bridge of her nose, and she holds up a Polaroid picture of two round faces, both grinning—a girl and her dad. We can’t meet in person because New York is in the thick of the novel coronavirus pandemic, so I can only picture her as she tells me over the phone about him now. He passed away when she was ten.

Soto’s dad was always worrying about her, she says. When she was about seven, he wrote her a letter, telling her to be careful as she moved through the city in the summer, giving her advice on how to stay safe when she went to the beach, letting her know he’d pray at night for her to grow up and really be somebody. “Hugs and kisses, your daddy, Norbert,” he signed it. Elsie says, “Looking back on it later, I felt like maybe he was trying to give me some type of direction or guidance. Maybe a sort of instruction manual. Because maybe he knew he wasn’t going to be around for a long period of time.” She is crying. Now we’re both crying. 

Norbert Soto was thirty-eight when he died of AIDS, on February 1, 1993. Days later, the city medical examiner’s office acquired a permit for his interment on Hart Island. By mid-March, he was buried in the city cemetery, in a plot that was dug deep and set apart out of fear. An untold number of other New Yorkers with AIDS were buried this way. Some families, like Soto’s, were called on to identify their loved ones, but they couldn’t change the course of their burials. Others were not notified of their relatives’ deaths at all. Some searched for their missing family members for years. 

“I wasn’t able to see his grave site and didn’t see them put him in the ground,” Soto tells me. “I kept believing, for years after, that he was still alive. Growing up without that finality, it’s not real,” she says of her father’s death. “I can’t imagine how other kids—especially with COVID-19 going on, who didn’t get to see their parents in their last moment—believe this is real.”

A Canadian-born artist named Melinda Hunt took an interest in the island and its inaccessible, unforgotten dead, and in 1991, she founded an organization called the Hart Island Project. She fought for years to obtain and make public the records of people who are buried there, leveraging the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain handwritten ledgers, burial dates, and plot locations from New York City.  To help humanize the data, she made it possible for their loved ones to post stories about them in a digital memorial she calls the Traveling Cloud Museum. In 2014, Hunt advised the New York Civil Liberties Union in its federal class action lawsuit to grant anyone the right to visit Hart Island. The city settled, and in 2015 the Department of Correction (DOC) began leading a very limited number of tightly controlled visits to the island, booked months in advance, and only for immediate family members of those buried there.

This was twenty-two years after Norbert Soto’s death. Three years later, in the spring of 2018, Elsie Soto, her sister, and her nephews made the trip across Long Island Sound to visit him. 

The DOC meets registered visitors on City Island, a sleepy residential community on an island in Pelham Bay. Here, on a pier cluttered with no
TRESPASSING signs, vetted and approved guests show their government-issued IDs and surrender what the officers consider contraband: phones, cameras, recording devices. On her first visit, the guards, Soto tells me, were callous. Her family disembarked the ferry in front of the brick ruins of a former arrivals hall from some past era of use, the ruins of a collapsing dynamo in the distance. There were no benches or restrooms. A monument had a quote from Matthew 5:3: BLESSED ARE THE POOR IN SPIRIT, FOR THEIRS IS THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. After waiting for a moment at a gazebo with daisies, black-eyed Susans, Russian sage, and little angel statues worn by rain, they boarded a prison bus with some fifteen mourning strangers to her dad’s grave site. Being transported like a prisoner, she says, was “triggering.” None of the armed officers escorting her could tell her exactly where in the plot her dad’s body was. They consulted a piece of paper and pointed to a spot in an open field.

She had brought a bouquet of yellow roses to lay down, but she knew they would die, she told me, and she wanted to bring something more permanent too: a heart-shaped rock—raw, clay-colored, and a bit bigger than palm-sized. She left it on the ground somewhere near his resting place. A few months later, a New York Times story, “Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field,” quoted Soto and included a picture of the rock. In June of 2019, the season-two premiere of the FX show Pose featured a story about AIDS deaths and the island. Soto watched to see if it would show Norbert’s plot.

Scene: Two characters walk through an imagined TV version of Hart Island. (This one has an office with a reception desk and a sign-in book.) They wander past a communal grave. (This one has spray-painted numbers on the coffins instead of names scrawled in wax crayon.) They walk from a beach through some trees to the AIDS plot, at the island’s end. They arrive to find dozens of heart-shaped rocks. Beyond the edges of the frame, it was implied, there are hundreds. Some are painted. Some have names written on them. Some have birth and death years. A small field of them is spread out at the characters’ feet. “Each one of these heart-shaped rocks represents someone buried here, left by someone left behind,” the actor Billy Porter says. Soto was on the edge of her seat as she watched this scene. “That’s my rock,” she said.

“It was so moving to me to see,” she tells me, welling up again. “Now we’re being heard. Now they’re listening to our story. They’re understanding that people that are loved are here. They’re not ‘forgotten.’ 

“And I just wish people would stop saying that, because I did not forget my dad,” she says. “I never forgot my dad.” 

In our great human experiment of cities, one of many challenges is how to best manage our dead. For nearly two centuries, American cities have buried the dead beneath stately markers in scenic, sprawling, green cemeteries. But in the twenty-first century, it is becoming clearer that urban burial grounds around the world are hitting a wall: What do we do when our cemeteries are full? 

Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, Londoners were being buried standing upright. Others share “recycled graves”: to accommodate new bodies, graves are reopened, their contents rearranged, their headstones flipped around and inscribed on the back. In Singapore, burial laws dictate that the maximum lease on a grave site is fifteen years. In Venice, the maximum lease is ten years—after which the bones are moved to a common ossuary or cremated to make space for newcomers. Japan’s cities have skirted the issue: more than 99.9 percent of people are cremated. 

In some parts of the United States, the cremation rate has risen in response to space constraints, the rapidly rising cost of burials, and the morbid realities of moving and managing bodies in a more mobile world. Meanwhile, given the environmental and economic inequities of the death industry, a millennial-powered “death positive” movement advocates for natural, or “green,” burials. 

When a crisis overwhelms a city’s death system, as the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed New York’s, its weaknesses become emphasized. And while a crisis may be the hardest time to consider change, it is also a chance to see the parts of a system that are the most broken.

In New York City, where between fifty thousand and sixty thousand people typically die in a non-pandemic year, cemetery real estate has long been in high demand. In June 2020, a handful of burial plots were posted to Craigslist—in New Jersey, Queens, and Long Island—with prices ranging from $1,050 to $20,000 each. “Sorry For Your COVID-19 Timeframe Loss,” one post reads. “VERY FAIR PRICE.” At more than $1,000 per square foot, a standard-sized burial plot in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery rivals the per-square-foot purchase price of an apartment in the city. The average cost of end-of-life arrangements in New York City is about $6,000—about a tenth of the city’s median household income. For 20 percent of New Yorkers, exercising one’s right of sepulcher may cost a third of their annual income.

Because many Americans struggle to cover an unexpected expense of even a few hundred dollars, not to mention thousands, every city has a system to help make death affordable for everyone. In Los Angeles County’s municipal burial system, bodies are cremated and buried in the county cemetery, their ashes added to a single plot beneath a single marker. An annual remembrance service incorporates prayers, songs, and rituals from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Native American traditions, and the public is welcome to attend. In Imperial County, California, east of San Diego, the bodies of unidentified people found in the desert used to be buried along the US-Mexico border, but due to space constraints, the office of the public administrator now cremates these remains and scatters the ashes at sea off the Southern California coast. In Washington, DC, and Baltimore, as of 2015, city burials occupy unmarked plots in municipal cemeteries. In many cities, bodies unclaimed for long enough become “city property” and may be offered to medical students or funeral directors in training before being laid to rest in municipal cemeteries. In Chicago, next of kin have sixty days to intervene. In Baltimore, they have seventy-two hours.

Where municipal systems fail, private citizens find ways to fill the gaps. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where funeral services can easily cost a year’s salary, and many can’t afford them, St. Luke Foundation for Haiti provides a coffin, grave, and burial, complete with funeral pall, prayers, and hymns. In Béthune, France, members of a private charitable foundation, the Confrérie des Charitables de Saint-Éloi de Béthune, don capes, white gloves, and Napoleonic bicorn hats to bury the dead, rich and poor alike. Because of the generosity of a few passionate benefactors, babies buried by the city of San Diego get a cemetery plot and an annual funeral attended by volunteers, for which Eagle Scouts craft tiny, glossy pinewood caskets, and pallbearers from the Knights of Columbus dress in sashes and plumed chapeaus and carry swords.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, cities make arrangements for cremations and burials and host eenzame uitvaarten(“lonely funerals”), so-called for the probable absence of many or any relatives or friends. But while a funeral may be lonely, and while in rare cases the deceased may be unidentified at the time of their death (in both Amsterdam and New York, this is the case with some fifteen people per year), the Dutch are not so quick to assume they are forgotten.

When the poet Bartelomeus Frederik Maria Droog was applying for the role of city poet in Groningen, the Netherlands, he decided a good responsibility would be to pen a custom poem for each city burial. “Even though I don’t believe in God or the afterlife, it’s human to give a goodbye from society to this person,” Droog tells me. “When a child is born, everybody’s happy, people send cards, and a human being is welcomed to the world. When somebody dies, there should be a kind of ritual to say farewell.” Absent the overtones of religion, Droog doesn’t intend for this ritual to guarantee the soul’s safe passage to a next place, so much as to provide a way to include the dead—all dead—in the human family.

He reads me some lines he wrote for “deceased male,” case no. 02010067, whose body was found in a canal and marred beyond identification. His voice crackles over Skype as he translates the last stanza from the Dutch in real time:

Soon earth will cover you
The planet will swallow you
As she does with everything she gave
And she will remember you.

In New York City, one in five people lives below the poverty line. The process for “indigent burials,” like that of most big cities, is a convoluted one. When someone dies alone in New York, the police department, each county’s public administrator, and the Office of Chief Medical Examiner are all involved in identifying and searching for any heirs and kin. If a decedent’s next of kin cannot be determined after a “reasonable amount of time,” the Office of Chief Medical Examiner may arrange for their burial on Hart Island. The manifold agencies involved in managing New York’s dead haphazardly shift around one another like tectonic plates, sometimes splitting apart and forming chasms for people to fall through. Thus, not everyone buried on Hart Island is poor—millionaire philanthropists and opera costume designers and the child actor who voiced the lead in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated feature Peter Pan have all landed there—or without living family members. Following that, not all of New York’s poor or family-less get buried on Hart Island.

 The Queens County Public Administrator has been known to arrange for cremation through local funeral homes if the estate contains sufficient funds. Staten Island has its own cemetery plot for municipal burials. A downloadable pamphlet on the Richmond County Public Administrator’s website explains that it doesn’t “relegate indigents” to a “common grave” like other boroughs do; rather it sets “a more humane standard,” with burials “in a place that may be visited.” 

 A number of organizations grant burial and funeral relief funds to people who fall into particular categories: church congregants, US veterans, victims of crimes, railroad workers, infants, Native Americans, volunteer firemen, the blind, professional actors, foreign-born persons, et cetera. And the city, through the Human Resources Administration, offers some financial assistance, in the form of reimbursable grants, which can supplement the cost of arrangements, but if a family asks for or agrees to a Hart Island burial, the burial costs are covered by the city in full. So for hundreds of families every year, this is the best or the only option.  

It was on a foggy and warm Thursday morning in late summer of 2018 when I took the Michael Cosgrove ferry from its point of departure—the same fenced-off pier on City Island that Elsie Soto traveled from—to the Hart Island gazebo. Like the eleven other people waiting to board, I had signed up with the DOC two months in advance. A Rikers officer put all our phones and recording devices in a canvas bag, handed out liability waivers and xeroxed information packets about the island’s history, and traveled with us on the short river passage. On arrival, we all walked over gravel and crumbled concrete to the gazebo just beyond the arrival hall ruins, where we were allowed to stand around for about an hour before being ushered back. Even confined to this little pocket of the island, with its memorial that is much too small for all it tries to acknowledge, our view obscured by trees and dilapidated ruins, Hart Island felt wide open and peaceful. The East River lapped at the mile-long riprap coast. Osprey, who nest on the pilings of the ferry dock, soared above. A caretaker came by on his riding mower and told me about the raccoons on the island, tame from being hand-fed by inmates over generations, white-tailed deer, a pair of bald eagles, and every spring, “hundreds” of baby geese. “It’s the cutest thing,” he said. I might like to be buried in such a place, I thought. Today, the Rikers officer told me, there were sixteen burials under way, and two disinterments, all carefully tucked out of view.

The disinterments interested me. For families like Soto’s, who were not given a choice at the time of death, or those who needed more time to make arrangements, the city offers need-based grants to exhume and relocate the remains of loved ones from the island. There are between thirty and forty disinterments each year—some 3 percent of the average annual number of burials on the island. “Once you find the plot, how do you know where the body is?” I asked the Rikers officer. “You pace it out,” he told me, describing the system designed for Civil War battles, still in use today. “As long as your feet aren’t too small. When you open up the ground, if there’s no wood left and the bones are all together, forensics takes them all. They do the sorting.” 

I wondered: What makes people feel the need to unbury their loved ones’ bones in a rescue mission? Later, reflecting on how other cities manage and mark municipal burials, it occurred to me: funerals.

Unlike a number of other cities, New York has not provided any sort of funeral services at its city cemetery since the 1940s. I’m a little ashamed when I email this fact to Bart Droog and he responds, “My god! That’s really terrible!” Throughout the spring of 2020, as images of Hart Island burials flood the news, I read account after account that obsesses over the decomposition of the bodies as their boxes are handled by incarcerated people. I have not seen a single mention of the human family, nor had I thought about, until now, the lack of any kind of rite, ritual, funeral, or post-burial communal observance.

In The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas W. Laqueur writes about how societies are influenced by their dead and vice versa. When I call him at his home, outside Berkeley, California, where he is quarantining, he tells me that we mark our history, personal and social, by the dead, defining generations and families by the birth and death dates of our ancestors. “Death is the end of a story,” he says, “and all of us want to end the story in a way that we can imagine another story beginning… All of us would like to believe that somehow our being on earth makes a difference to someone. We want some sort of ceremony, some sort of recognition.” 

The funeral is a ritual of inclusion, he says. But in his research, he has found that it can also signify the opposite. As he wrote in a 1983 paper, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals,” in eighteenth-century England, funerals for the poor began to represent “absolute exclusion from the social body.” Intentionally ignominious “pauper funerals” became “occasions both terrifying to contemplate oneself and profoundly degrading to one’s survivors.” This form of social theater drew on centuries of history: Medieval European cultures abused the corpses of criminals and traitors, leaving them in the streets for days to be eaten by pigs and dogs; historian James Boyden calls them “cautionary deaths.” As cities grew, these rites increasingly signaled that one’s marginalization would not be only societal, it would be physical, and it would not end with death.

In a city, the ways individuals react to death and treat the dead are amplified by quantity, density, visibility. Neighbors, whether they know one another’s names or not, are bound by proximity, smells, sounds, sights, all part of the urban ecosystem. To visit a grave site is no longer just an act of individual reflection; it can be a way to connect to a shared history, to what is lost: a portal to a city’s past. To attend a memorial service, to look at a photograph, or to say the names of the dead can be a political act. To keep someone from doing these things can be a political act too. In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison writes about the cruelty, in ancient cultures, of separating families from the bodies of their deceased: “To deprive the grief-stricken of the loved one’s remains was a calamity worse than the one that brought on their grief, for it denied them the means by which to meet their obligation.”

After a long-delayed first visit to her father’s grave, Elsie Soto made several more trips to Hart Island, and she says the visitation experience improved. One day, when the sun burst through the clouds just as she arrived, she tells me, she wished she could spread out a picnic blanket. The last time she went, the DOC even provided flowers for families to leave if they wanted. But for undocumented New Yorkers who have sought sanctuary in this sanctuary city, and for anyone else who may not want to or feel able to disclose their identity to a correction officer, it remains impossible to visit at all.

“The most progressive city in the whole nation has been stopping New Yorkers and visitors [from going to pay their] respects,” Ydanis Rodríguez, a New York city council member, said during a 2019 hearing to push for legislation that would remove DOC oversight and provide his constituents unfettered access to their loved ones’ Hart Island grave sites. “We have been denying that right.” 

If the dead were all forgotten, unclaimed, and unwanted, there would be no one to deny. But the list of the denied comprises thousands of people and is several generations long. If Hart Island’s corporeal function is to manage the city’s dead, its spiritual function has been to send a message to the living: Some New Yorkers live and die, only to be treated as nobody. To understand the purpose in that message, one needs to better understand the city.

“I wish to give you some reasons why a great city is a great evil.” In a speech to the National Housing Association in 1913, British historian Viscount James Bryce enumerated the pitfalls of the urban experiment: the lack of nature, the perilously high tensions between people in a densely populated place, the psychological burden of ceaseless stimuli and noise. Also classism. In small communities, neighborliness is shared between the wealthy and the poorer classes. But in metropolises, social strata form. One inherent hostility of a great city, Bryce wrote, was that neighborliness has no reason to exist.

In 1730, when New York’s population was 8,622, nearly half of all the taxable wealth in the city was shared by some 140 white men—the 1.6 percent. A third of New Yorkers were living in poverty. By 1800, according to Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, the richest 20 percent owned almost 80 percent of the city’s wealth, while the bottom half owned less than 5 percent. For centuries, this same imbalance existed in cities, from Paris to Glasgow to London and New York. Colonial New York even had legislation that tried explicitly to banish “Vagabonds and Idle Persons that are a Nuisance & Common Grievance of the Inhabitants” from the city. But no law could mitigate New York’s out-of-control urban growth: the population quadrupled between 1790 and 1820, and in short time, quadrupled again. By the mid-1800s, half of New Yorkers were new arrivals, many without a penny, farthing, or kopeck to their name. Economist Henry George crunched the numbers and foresaw a population of 160 million by the year 2000 if the pace of growth were maintained. “Such a city is impossible,” he concluded.

As the country industrialized, factory and mill jobs lured and sometimes recruited workers and their families to crowded and inhospitable cities, where their labor was bought for far too little. They were always tired and they never had enough, and this kept them at the bottom of the class ladder. In fact, this system made advancement so unrealistic that it was called “the American dream.”

The powerful wealthy minority saw these lower classes as a threat to public health just by virtue of their existence. The poor were called “shiftless, destructive and stupid”; “dependent, predatory, contaminating;” connected with social evils that were “gregarious,” “prolific,” and “hereditary,” all  in the words of the heads of the agencies ostensibly formed to help 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 publication of Jacob Riis’s influential book How the Other Half Lives, in the late nineteenth century, New York City’s tenements housed an estimated three quarters of the population. Riis, a photographer, social activist, and voyeur, strove—by entering the homes of the poor with his camera and flashbulb—to shed light on what he described as “the foul core of New York” (though this was decades before New York City came to be known as “the big apple”). His definition of charity echoed the broader approach of local agencies: “It is a dreary old truth that those who would fight for the poor must fight the poor to do it.” Central to that fight was a long campaign to remove the overcrowded tenements in which so many immigrants, workers, and families lived. All New York needed was somewhere for those residents to go. 

In his essay “The Social Waste of a Great City,” Louis L. Seaman, the chief of staff at Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island Hospitals, wrote: “Men and cities thrive, waste, and perish on parallel and strictly analogous lines.” As bodies do, cities push their unwanted outward, expel them to the margins, banish them. For centuries, municipal bodies have employed islands for this purpose. Take the quarantine hospitals, penal colonies, and places of exile off the coasts of Ecuador, Panama, South Africa, Tasmania, French Guyana, Japan, Canada, Venice, and Cannes. Not to mention: Australia. Alcatraz. Few are still in use as places of banishment, at least not formally.

While in some ways its island geology has confined New York City, in this way it also had a great advantage: off the coast of Manhattan are thousands of acres of other islands. Some historic accounts extol their beauty; others speculate that some were formed by the hoofprints of Satan being chased across Long Island Sound. These flecks of land were perfect banishing places. 

New York City didn’t have the financial or structural resources to support the people Seaman referred to as “social waste”—but the city’s leaders did feel they had the moral obligation to do so, which prompted a telling union: In 1860, New York City formed the Department of Public Charities and Correction. As Stacy Horn details in Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in Nineteenth-Century New York, this hybrid department for charity work and policing would oversee all the city’s societal exiles. Its territory would be these other islands.

By 1890, the islands around New York were home to factories for fertilizer, fish rendering and fat rendering, where hog bristle was made into brushes, and horse corpses were made into glue. On Barren Island, in the unsparingly literally named Dead Horse Bay, residents culled refuse according to their family’s place in the hierarchy. The poorest were rag pickers, the next tier were paper and metal scavengers, and at the top of the ladder were bone sorters. 

The islands also housed immigrants, refugees, “lunatics,” and prisoners—men, women, and children alike. There were almshouses and workhouses, and hospitals for the epileptic, pregnant, and paralytic. The ill were sent by boat, sometimes escorted by police under cover of night, to island quarantine colonies for typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, or all of the above, from which many never returned. In “smallpox raids” in Harlem and Little Italy, symptomatic children were taken from their parents’ arms. On North Brother Island, in the East River, an Irish cook named “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, a chronic carrier of typhoid fever, was exiled there for twenty-
six years. 

As the lower classes were marginalized in life, so were they marginalized in death. “Potter’s fields,” burial grounds for the poor that take their name from the Book of Matthew,[1] were established initially in Lower Manhattan. As the city grew, they were pushed to the fringes, moving outward concentrically, to Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Wards Island, Randall’s Island, and eventually, in 1869, to Hart Island, where the “pauper funeral” was institutionalized.

In cemeteries, the dead remind the living, as a common grave inscription goes, “As I am now, so you must be.” At Hart Island’s cemetery, the dead remind the living that as they were exiled in life, they will be exiled in death too. In 1981, The New York Daily News celebrated the Rikers prisoners’ Hart Island burial detail, calling it “a way for the prisoners to repay society” for all that charity society must have given them. 

Since the city cemetery began permitting visits from families of those buried there in 2015, its carceral likeness has been especially visible to these families: to the Connecticut parents of Brooklyn College student Charles Guglielmini, whose backpack was found near the Queensboro Bridge; to the brother and daughter of actor Paul Alladice, who searched for him for years before Melinda Hunt used FOIA requests to create a digital Hart Island database; to the friends of the advocate Lewis Haggins Jr., who, homeless himself, cofounded Harlem-based nonprofit Picture the Homeless (the gazebo was built by his organization); to Elsie Soto and her family; to everyone who can’t afford a funeral or a plot, and for whom a city burial is meant to be a service but feels like a punishment.

The Department of Public Charities and Correction broke apart in 1895, but the systems it built to criminalize poverty and geographically exile social outcasts are still in place, and only more entrenched: The interconnected bureaucracies and protocols that collect the poor and push them to the city’s fringes have only evolved. Homeless shelters, psychiatric centers, landfills, prisons, and the city cemetery continue to inhabit its islands.

In a May 2020 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Time magazine writer W. J. Hennigan stewed over what he saw when covering the death industry’s struggle to keep up with the toll of COVID-19. Comparing a makeshift morgue to an “Amazon fulfillment center” for bodies, he said: “This is not the sort of way you expect your life to end—where you’d be stacked like cordwood in a refrigerated trailer at a marine terminal in Brooklyn… There are two hundred of these trailers across New York, at every hospital. It’s a haunting thing.”

The scale of death Hennigan witnessed was haunting, but the infrastructure around it is a city’s clinical responsibility during a mass death event. At the onset of the H5N1 Bird Flu outbreak in 2008, New York City assembled a ninety-three-page “Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan”; in spring 2020, parts of it were put into action largely unchanged.

Knowing there was a plan in place could not have offered much comfort as the coronavirus pandemic death toll soared. The city’s death rate doubled in spring 2020, there was a fivefold increase in burials on Hart Island, and the privilege of control people assumed they would have over burial and commemoration seemed to shrink away. A crematory wall collapsed from overuse. The National Guard was called in to help process bodies, and funeral directors were so overwhelmed that they stopped answering their phones. The communal events around death that bring us closure and comfort were postponed or canceled, or else live-streamed with heartbreaking awkwardness, only emphasizing the distance we are forced to keep. 

At this cultural breaking point, Hart Island seemed to emerge above all else as the most googleable memento mori, the best synecdoche for death in the pandemic. With a fatal virus seemingly knocking at the world’s door, the fate of being buried in Hart Island’s trenches haunted everyone the most. 

For Melinda Hunt, the kind of breathless, morbid publicity Hart Island typically attracts is part of her twenty-eight-year struggle to humanize the city cemetery. 

“I think that a city burial during a pandemic is a good choice,” Hunt tells me when we speak on the phone in May, a little frustrated at the negativity swirling around the island’s burial system, which in her view was operating quite smoothly in the midst of disaster. “All these rituals give people tremendous comfort. But you don’t need to be embalmed, and you don’t need to have your own plot.” Although for so many families, she says, there is shame in not having those things.

Hunt knows people who are ashamed to talk about burying their loved ones on Hart Island. Elsie Soto hopes to invite these families into the fold of her closed Facebook group, where she says she tries “to show people that Hart Island is a beautiful place, a peaceful place.” Hunt just hopes they don’t read the macabre April 2020 piece, “The Transformation of Hart Island,” in The New Yorker, which describes the physical reality of the burial process in lurid detail.

She tells me to pull up one of her latest projects, a drone video of the burials from early April 2020, on Vimeo. I watch as black-and-white dots—sixteen men in uniform—move in sync to cover a layer of plywood with three feet of fresh, dark dirt. “I look at that, and it looks really organized to me,” Hunt says. The burials are spatially efficient, they are natural in that they are chemical-free “green” burials, they are moving forward while the city’s death-industrial complex is otherwise in shambles, and they are free of charge to mourning New Yorkers. “Does it matter if the bodies are two inches or two feet apart?” She pauses between words for emphasis: “Does. It. Matter. If each box is a grave. And we know where each grave is. Does it matter if the graves are two feet apart or two inches apart?”

Hunt was the first to work with a drone photographer to capture the city burials. Accompanying her footage was a five-minute voice-over by Vincent Mingalone, a florist who served six months on Rikers for disobeying a court order and who volunteered for the Hart Island burial detail from late 2019 into February 2020. His stark testimony—comforting in its gentle, respectful matter-of-factness—brings greater depth and nuance to the process and the “Hart Island crew” that carries it out. “I don’t know if they’re going to be able to get the inmate labor they had before,” he says. “A lot didn’t volunteer for that job… And now I think it’s going to be slim pickings, because a lot of inmates with minor crimes such as I had—they’ve all been released because of this pandemic.” The image cuts to black. Hunt knew that without inmates to carry out the burials, the city would have to hire contract workers. And in fact, comparing her own footage with the drone footage that came from other outlets later in the month, she believes the city already has.

For her, this is a triumph. The end of Mingalone’s video is full of hope. It also foreshadows a sea change: In December 2019, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law the gradual transfer of Hart Island from the jurisdiction of the DOC to the Department of Parks and Recreation, to be finalized in 2021. The legislative package includes bills that would help facilitate capital renovations, overhaul the burial process, better memorialize those buried there, and improve accessibility for visitors. When the transfer is complete, the city cemetery will be free of its prison status for the first time since its founding. Hunt, more recently joined by other allies, including councilman Rodriguez and the chair of the council committee on health, Mark Levine, has been working toward this milestone for decades. 

At a hearing back in 2016 regarding the transfer, Levine described the city-owned, city-run cemetery, because most people on the city council had never visited: 

I say from firsthand experience just what a spectacular place it is. It was a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. It served as a workhouse, as they called it, for boys, and at one point, a drug rehab facility. It’s got a monument to world peace, and in someone’s idea of a sick joke, a few feet away from it, there are two Cold War–era missile silos—all part of the history of this incredible island. If there’s one takeaway that you all should walk away with from this hearing, it’s that you should want to visit Hart Island. 

His description echoes that of Green-Wood Cemetery from its own website: “A magnet for history buffs and bird watchers… Green-Wood is a Revolutionary War historic site (the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776 across what is now its grounds), a designated site on the Civil War Discovery Trail and a registered member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System.” Green-Wood was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior in 2006. Hart Island could be all of these things, if New York let it.

But because of its entrenched association with the mad, criminal, sick, and poor, it is hard for Hart Island to be seen that way. When Hunt released her drone video, its reception was not what she’d intended. The New York Post lifted the footage, Hunt says, and replaced Mingalone’s narration with eerie music. Drone photographers from various news networks deployed immediately, trying to capture their own footage of the same types of burials, which were being carried out in more or less the same manner as they had for a century and a half, names and burial coordinates logged in handwritten ledgers, plots measured by human paces, making it possible for each site to be found again. Now that the cause of death, in so many cases, might be COVID-19, everyone wanted a look.

We all need to get used to Hart Island, because “most people who die of COVID-19 will be buried there,” Hunt tells me. Will some people from middle- or upper-class families fall through the cracks and end up buried on Hart Island, as the voracious readers of the spring’s flurry of Hart Island news stories fear? Likely yes, as they always have been. But the most economically disadvantaged communities are the communities whose dead are most likely to be buried on Hart Island under normal circumstances—thanks to centuries of strategic design. The difference now is that they will be buried there in greater numbers, in more rapid succession, as the virus tears through these communities, killing thousands in weeks. Throughout the spring the virus killed Black and Latino New Yorkers at twice the rate of white New Yorkers. In the public housing projects of Far Rockaway and Carnasie-Flatlands, death rates double and triple the city average. And at the same time, a massive recession pushes more people into economic hardship, ever further from affording a burial anywhere other than Hart Island.

So the world is watching—not to finally advocate for better access or rites or a poet’s eulogies, but to crane their necks as horrified voyeurs at the deep trenches and the spartan caskets. To use wartime terminology like mass graves. To fixate on the fluid indignities of a body breaking down and on the constructed horrors of a lonely burial, and to think, I don’t want that to be me. On Hart Island, thanatophobia (fear of death and dying) melds with aporophobia (fear of the poor).

Fear of death is part of the human condition. Fear of the other is part of the settler-colonial structure. Fear of Hart Island, instead of making us want to confront and tear down the systems that use it to marginalize people, just perpetuates that marginalization. As Melinda Hunt and other advocates work to convey, to make it a place one would want to be buried—not through privatization or gentrification, but by making a city burial a better burial, fit for everyone—would be an act of rebellion. 

For the time being, the only way for registered visitors to reach Hart Island is via City Island, a majority-white waterfront community described by The New York Times in 1982 as “cut off by Long Island Sound from the world and, perhaps more importantly, from the rest of the Bronx and its woes.”  At the 2016 city council hearing, council member Jimmy Vacca, who represents City Island, promised that, regarding plans to turn Hart Island into a “tourist attraction,” a place that would welcome birders and history buffs and New Yorkers who wish to honor their dead, “as long as I’m around, that will not be the case.”

City Islanders’ resistance has for years slowed any effort to open up or revitalize Hart Island, and has fed the discourse about disbanding the Hart Island system altogether. Some have pushed to move city-funded burials or cremations outside of New York City entirely. Even journalists have chimed in, advocating for ending the burials, and conflating that with an end to the injustices of the Hart Island system. 

But for many people with loved ones there, to retire the cemetery would be giving up on the island, rather than committing to making it better. Soto thinks ending burials on Hart Island “would not be fair to the city overall,” she tells me. “Moving them farther away would make it harder for people to get to. It’s not right.”

Soto doesn’t want to see the burials replaced by cremations, either. When she dies, she wants to be buried herself, to return to the earth. “It’s more natural, more appealing to me. Plus,” she says, “you’re always at a place.”

She’s working now on a plan to get some sort of memorial installed at the AIDS plot, near the tip of Hart Island, where her father is buried: “It would honor what they’ve been through—the fact that they were segregated in life and then in death, and how that affects the families that are still living,” she says. It could be the rite, the service, the remembrance that Hart Island families have not been allowed to provide.

He’s not forgotten, she says of her father. “He’s always going to be at Hart Island. I’ll go visit him and spend time with him and honor him for as long as I can.” 

[1] Matthew 27:5–7, English Standard Version: “And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers.”
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