'I like to think of Hart Island as New York City’s family tomb'
November 8, 2013 9:26 AM   Subscribe

There are a few ways to end up on Hart Island. One third of its inhabitants are infants—some parents couldn’t afford a burial, others didn’t realize what a “city burial” meant when they checked it on the form. Many of the dead here were homeless, while others were simply unclaimed; if your body remains at the city morgue for more than two weeks, you, too, will be sent for burial by a team of prisoners on Hart Island.
posted by anastasiav (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Odd that cities would still bury the unclaimed, rather than cremate them. Burial is a lot more expensive and labor intensive. Especially if embalming is required by law.
Then again, I suppose the concept of a government disposing of bodies in large ovens tend to send-up a whole mess of red flags for some people.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:36 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Was just reading this article. Seems like something out of a movie, where a large modern city can utilize an abandoned island to dispose of unclaimed bodies by the thousands.
posted by Big_B at 9:44 AM on November 8, 2013

OMG that place looks like a Disneyland for urban ruin explorers!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:03 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Why "despicable and inhumane"? These are dead bodies we're talking about.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:07 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am strangely pleased about the long-time backhoe operator's decision to be buried on the island at the end of his life, apparently with his family's approval.
posted by elizardbits at 10:12 AM on November 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

Why "despicable and inhumane"? These are dead bodies we're talking about.

Because the bodies are essentially buried in an unmarked mass grave that is closed to the public and extremely difficult to visit (it's basically equivalent to visiting a prison in its security measures). It's not what I would think of if I was mourning a stillborn child or infant and was told I had the option of a "city burial."
posted by likeatoaster at 10:14 AM on November 8, 2013

Hart Island is more fascinating than the link lets on. I've been reading up a bit on it. It is going to be a location in my next novel.
Over the years it has served as the site for virtually every sort of public "service" for marginalized people: a tuberculosis asylum, a quarantine for diseases and potentially infectious immigrants, a woman's mental asylum, a workhouse for truant boys, a prison, a Potter's field, a place for nuclear missile silos, and I'm probably leaving a few out.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:22 AM on November 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

It's not what I would think of if I was mourning a stillborn child or infant and was told I had the option of a "city burial."

Hmm. If the city of NY (or any other metro area) offered to provide to me for free a service that can cost up to $15,000 when paid for privately, I would definitely assume the worst. However, I understand that many people might not already have this information/might not always assume the worst.
posted by elizardbits at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Previously on MetaFilter.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

"the dignity of being able to visit the remains of their deceased relatives"

You need to take your explanation back a few steps. I don't understand what's dignified about visiting a place where rotting bodies are stored, or how it would it be any different if the bodies had been cremated. My beloved father has been dead for 10 years, and I've never gotten the urge to go stand near his corpse.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:39 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Potters fields have been around for centuries. Like it or not, class/economic/societal conditions have always led to people dying anonymously, people dying without resources, and people dying alone without family to provide burial services for them.

Around here, people are buried in individual graves with a bronze disc as a marker. Potters fields aren't separate from cemeteries, they are areas allocated within cemeteries, and the county pays for the burial. The markers have burial numbers on them and you can usually find a person through cross referencing county records and sexton records for the cemetery. So treatment of the unclaimed dead - at least around here - seems to be reasonably well managed.

Harts Island is an atrocity to me. Unmarked burials with no visitation allowed? Poor record keeping with whole journals missing? Under the purview of the prison system? This is just bad management from A to Z. I hope the people trying to address this are successful in getting the place recognized and the situation corrected.
posted by disclaimer at 10:49 AM on November 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

This place gets my 'wow' for the week and then some. So many bodies; all stacked in boxes like pieces in a warehouse; it just looks weird and inhumane.

Reminds me of some of the other quasi-anonymous cemeteries like the Austin State Hospital Cemetery; where everytime they do research, or (ewww) dig to try and solve a mystery; they keep finding more and more unmarked graves and unidentified bodies.
posted by buzzman at 10:49 AM on November 8, 2013

Cemeteries are really meant for the living. For many people (myself included) it can be cathartic to go to the final location of a loved one's body and speak to them. They're not really there, but we still need to think of them as "somewhere," at least for a while.

To the survivors, people who die and are buried in a mass grave like Hart Island often just seem to disappear. Seeking their burial site is a way to come to terms with that severed connection.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:53 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a volunteer with the Hart Island Project, although I haven't had an opportunity to help out too terribly much (especially as I moved out of the NYC area recently).

Getting custodianship of the island and the burials transferred from the NYC Dept. of Corrections to the Department of Parks is a critical first step. The mindset and nature of the DoC is just not a good match for a burial ground. The lack of access and secrecy about the island on the part of the DoC stems not only from the institutional mindset of a prison system, but it's also a symptom of the DoC wanting to cover its ass. Unsurprisingly, they're not very good at running a cemetery and have not wanted any light shined on their stewardship of Hart Island. At least the parks department will have some experience in preventing erosion.

Recently the DoC has gone so far as to start removing the small, numbered concrete markers that have previously marked the mass graves, while continuing to fight Melinda Hunt's FOIA requests for GPS information and other information.
posted by ursus_comiter at 10:57 AM on November 8, 2013 [13 favorites]

When I was a kid we lived in the Blackbelt of Alabama. Deep off some random back road, down many anonymous dirt tracks, my father used to take us to the site of a long since forgotten civil war skirmish. Under the long hanging spanish moss were row after row of white marble stones that all said either "CSA - Unknown" or "USA - Unknown" each were interspersed randomly among each other and neither were distinguished from the others. On the side were a couple of slightly larger stones with the actual names of low ranking CSA and US officers. If it weren't for the low wrought-iron fence around the whole it would have been swallowed up by the magnolias and live oaks that surrounded it. I always thought it was facinating and a bit sad that here were dozens of young men who died grappling with each other in this remote swamp and people didn't even know who they were or where they came from, nor that they had even given their lives for their countries.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:58 AM on November 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I don't understand what's dignified about visiting a place where rotting bodies are stored, or how it would it be any different if the bodies had been cremated. My beloved father has been dead for 10 years, and I've never gotten the urge to go stand near his corpse.

For me, the ability to visit a gravesite, put some flowers on it or clean it up a bit, honors the memory of who has passed and what they meant to me. It's a visceral experience of remembering the loss, and a way to pay attention, in a strange way, to my own mortality.

I live, basically, in a cemetery - the same one in which my mother and several generations of ancestors are buried. My house is surrounded on all three sides by it. I see indications all over it of people paying respect to their dead - flowers, notes from grandchildren taped to a gravestone, matchbox cars on a child's grave. It's part of the grieving process, and for many people it's very important.

And I'm a genealogist by hobby. Being able to look at the graves of people who've come before me, and record their physical presence on the landscape, puts them in perspective - they're not a paper record anymore. Someone took the time to bury them and to make a marker. They become real people.

I think that how we treat our dead and our memory of them is hugely important. And a physical marker in a physical place lets us do that, regardless of the circumstances of their death or their economic state in their last days.
posted by disclaimer at 10:59 AM on November 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

I do think there's a time limit beyond which graves aren't really needed. Maybe 70-100 years after death, when that person's loved ones and friends have also passed. After that, there might be better uses for the space. (Like burying other people.) We sort of acknowledge this time limit already in its most extreme form, when archaeologists excavate ancient gravesites.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:11 AM on November 8, 2013

My people aren't big on that kind of physical history, but I understand that some people are. Of course, funds are limited and at some point, the money that goes towards land in an expensive area, labor, and grave markers is money that can't go to something else.

I am surprised that more people are not disturbed by the fact that people are only being paid 50 cents an hour to bury dead bodies (!!!). That, to me, is also inhumane.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:12 AM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thorzdad, I believe that the use of burial rather than cremation (which is unique to NYC as far as U.S. cities go, presently) is that prior to 1963 the Catholic Church forbade cremations. With NYC's significant Catholic population, it was prudent to respect that in all cases.

The Gizmodo article doesn't make it clear, but Hart Island has been NYC"s potter's field since 1869 and has pretty much been under the control of the penal or reform system that entire time. The 1976 date for the DoC taking over is a little misleading. That's when a drug rehab program with residency on the island closed down and there ceased being anyone living on the island.
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:20 AM on November 8, 2013

I do think there's a time limit beyond which graves aren't really needed. Maybe 70-100 years after death, when that person's loved ones and friends have also passed. After that, there might be better uses for the space.

Are you kidding? r/CemeteryPorn begs to differ. There is nothing cooler than wandering around really old cemeteries looking at ancient grave markers. And in a lot of cities a cemetery is often the only source of tended greenspace and sculpture art for miles around.
posted by nicebookrack at 11:23 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I do think there's a time limit beyond which graves aren't really needed. Maybe 70-100 years after death, when that person's loved ones and friends have also passed. After that, there might be better uses for the space.

Here in Philadelphia (this is true of other cities as well, like D.C.) many old graveyards were turned into playgrounds. While this was a popular trend for a while, many communities are now trying to better demarcate and mark the burials still in situ, because the dead matter to the living. I mean, I'm due to spend some quality time teaching with boxes of human bones to a hundred people tonight*, and I still think the playgrounds in Philadelphia and the lack of transparency at Hart Island are a tragedy. I think the actions of the prisoners who leave crosses and offerings is quite poignant and possibly the most human aspect of this. The dead matter; respect matters. They matter differently to different people, but a decent policy should have been created to cover them.

*in an educational setting, not Hannibal's basement
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Simply covering the graveyard with fill and repurposing the land above does seem callous. Maybe it would be better to disinter the dead after 100 years or so, and then reinter them in a mausoleum or catacomb, with appropriate record keeping so they can still be located.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:48 AM on November 8, 2013

In contrast, I read a news article not long ago that described a project by young folks in a city here in the northwest. They tended an old cemetery--one that was out of the mainstream, and closed to new admissions. These were the graves of folks who'd shuffled off their mortal coil several decades ago. Some of them died back in the 19th Century. The young folks cleared weeds and picked up litter, cleared the clutter off marker plates. They were asked to read aloud the names on the headstones as they tended the gravesites.

One of the kids remarked that saying the deceased's name had a profound effect. He said that it may have been the first time in a hundred years that anyone has said this name out loud. Good history lesson for these kids, and something about perspective, mortality, connectivity. I'm pretty sure, but not altogether certain, that the dead folks didn't care.

I have had those discussions: that the dead ought to be cremated, not buried. But that's just me. I don't want to be stuck in the ground. I want to be scattered somewhere by someone who knew me. In truth, it's the passing that I'm concerned with, not the destination. When I was in a combat zone, my worry was not so much that I would get killed, but that I would die alone. Indeed the graveyard is for the living. But it seems to me that the manner of passing is the central issue.

Hart Island is a memorial to all those whose circumstances led them to be buried there. It's fitting that their burials are helping other souls to reclaim themselves. Maybe not all the prisoners on the burial detail have a useful epiphany, but even one now and then is a good thing. Those poor souls in the caskets don't have any way of knowing that their passage marked a good deed. So, like any cemetery, the dead at Hart Island serve the living.

I can't imagine how making a dog and pony show out of the situation will improve it.
posted by mule98J at 12:10 PM on November 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

There maybe safety reasons for restraining people's motion on the island. I know from first hand experience as a child that old wood coffins can collapse under the weight of a person passing overhead. Falling into a whole pit of such rotting coffins isn't a pleasant mental image.
posted by astrobiophysican at 2:51 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are making mass graves with coffins you are doing it wrong. That is what the next generation will call a "sinkhole." With added human remains goodness.

I really don't care what happens to my body after I'm done with it or with the bodies of my ancestors who have also done so. After my mother died last December she was cremated and her ashes scattered on a garden the mausoleum maintains for people who don't want memorials. Some of the family were apoplectic but I was fine with that. The idea of "visiting" Mom seems all out of whack; she isn't really there. I'd rather remember her by the hundreds of photographs and thousands of handiworks, including some truly amazing quilts, which she created and left for us.

As for names being remembered -- my name is Roger Williams. I'm sure it's said several times a second, mostly by people trying to get their GPS to get them where they want to go in Rhode Island.

Even if my name was memorable, you can be the Emperor of the greatest empire ever known, you can invent a calendar that will outlast you by 2,000 years, and still some wiseass who doesn't know you exist will write a comedic take on how your calendar got to seem so fucked up, because well ignorance doubles down on itself and being dead you can't correct it.

Despite the efforts of some friends of mine to avert it for everyone, at this point it seems pretty likely that I'll die. At that point my final legacy, no matter what else I've done before, will be an 80 kg waste disposal problem. The idea of planting my body somewhere with a marker strikes me as about as sensible as accumulating a mound of all the garbage I've produced in my life and calling it a monument.

No matter who you are, no matter how many people love you and how much you have done, you will be forgotten. Don't make things worse by trying to avert that. Just let the world move on, hopefully without putting the carbon your metabolism has sequestered into the atmosphere.
posted by localroger at 6:23 PM on November 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't argue with the notion that NYC should revamp its "city burials" process to better respect the concerns of grieving loved ones, with better records and access.

But speaking strictly personally... saving dead people is weird. Standing over dead bodies as a form of grieving is super weird. Campaigning for years for the right to visit unmarked plots of decayed remains is super duper weird. And spending decades looking for the mass grave that might contain a stillborn baby... reflects the kind of emotional hurt that finding such a grave probably won't help with anyway.

The upset families have my support and my best wishes. I get that they feel differently about these issues than I do. And I respect that and support them. But our entire attitude towards the remains of our dead is just so deeply weird. My dad died last year and my feelings about that we're not at all tied up with the corpse he left behind.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:08 AM on November 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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