If You Die Poor or Alone in New York City, You’ll Be Buried by Prisoners in a Mass Grave

If You Die Poor or Alone in New York City, You’ll Be Buried by Prisoners in a Mass Grave

If You Die Poor or Alone in New York City, You’ll Be Buried by Prisoners in a Mass Grave

In New York and other cities, activists are pushing back against the persistence of inequality in death, as in life.


As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments. 

* * *

We all die alone. But some of us die even more alone than others.

In New York City, if you are unfortunate enough to come to the end of your days without family or friends, or if those who love you don’t have the means to pay for burial, you end up isolated and anonymous for eternity, stranded on a little-known island off the shores of the Bronx, almost entirely out of reach of anyone who might care that you are gone.

New York’s process for dealing with “indigent burials” has a distinctly Victorian flavor to it. Since the late nineteenth century, the city has interred its poor and anonymous dead on Hart Island, a 130-acre scrap of land in Long Island Sound. The final resting place for as many as one million souls—victims of yellow fever, HIV and a succession of other plagues, along with mental illness and poverty—it is the city’s Id, or maybe its Hades, a forlorn place accessible only by ferry.

And the burial process itself? This is done by convicts who are imprisoned on nearby Rikers Island. Paid at a rate of 50 cents an hour, they handle about 1,500 corpses each year, burying them in wooden coffins in unmarked mass graves. These burials usually happen on a weekly basis, far from the eyes of the public, in a grim and punitive setting. Aside from the prisoners and the ferryman, few people are allowed to visit the island.

The question of what to do with a city’s unclaimed and unwanted dead is an old one. While it’s easy for most of us to ignore society’s poorest members even when they’re living, and easier still when they have died, local government’s cannot ignore dead bodies. So, in many cases, states and counties help to fund indigent burials, along with places to bury the dead.

The way that’s done says a lot about a city—its size, its resources, its priorities and its character. In the case of New York, which has far more bodies to deal with than any other US municipality, the treatment of the destitute dead shadows the city’s striving, breakneck pursuit of success at all costs. These people, the implication is, could not make it here. They did not make it anywhere. Their disposal, like so much else in New York, is managed behind the grimy shield of bureaucracy, and precious little concern is given to social niceties. The bodies are not cremated, as they are in many other cities, in case they need to be exhumed for evidence in some cold case. Aside from that, their remains are treated as things of little inherent value.

There are cities, albeit only a few, that have found ways to honor the men, women and even children who die on the margins of society. In Seattle, for instance, home to the $15 minimum wage, a group called Women in Black, part of a larger homeless advocacy group called WHEEL (for Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League), has for fifteen years been conducting silent sidewalk vigils for each person who dies while living on the streets, invisible in plain sight. “It’s a spiritual thing and also a rallying cry,” said Carol Cameron, chair of WHEEL’s Homeless Remembrance Project, who was homeless herself when the vigil tradition started. “We are crying out and people are hearing us. There are so many more homeless people now. Alive or dead, homeless people do matter.”

Thanks to years of effort by WHEEL and other homeless community groups, the city also holds an official biannual ceremony to mark the interment of those who have died in the previous years without the means for private burial, usually between 150 and 200 people. During the ceremony, the cremated remains are interred in a plot at a local cemetery in an area marked with a stone engraved with the words, “Gone but not forgotten, these people of Seattle.” Faith leaders say prayers. City officials read the names of the dead aloud. “What we need is some moment to reflect on our own connection to all of humanity and also, our own good fortune,” said Dr. Richard Harruff, the chief medical examiner of King County, which encompasses Seattle and bears responsibility for indigent burials. “To reflect back on the meaning of it. And probably, at the bottom of it, our own mortality.”

Outside the borders of cities like Seattle, however, such expressions of shared humanity are rare. In many places, indigent burials rank low on the priority list even during the best of times; when times are tight, for families as well as governments, the stories can get gruesome. Just last year, news reports revealed that 169 bodies had piled up in the office of the medical examiner in Wayne County, Michigan, which includes Detroit; a private group eventually came together to fund their respectful burial. And in Chicago in 2012, after the state legislature cut funding, the Cook County morgue was rocked by revelations of bodies left rotting in piles amid garbage and disrespectful treatment of the remains of infants.

Then there is Hart Island, the largest potter’s field in the United States and possibly the world.

The term “potter’s field” derives from the Gospel of Matthew and is freighted with dark meaning: it was the name given to the land bought with the thirty pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus, which he later threw back into the temple in remorse. The priests used this “blood money” to “to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.” In New York, previous potter’s fields had been in the heart of Manhattan, drawing opprobrium and disgust. Hart Island was supposed to be a more pastoral solution, with the added benefit of making the poor invisible in death.

The way things are done on Hart Island has its roots in the period following the Civil War. The city bought the island as a pauper’s graveyard in 1868, when the existing facilities in Manhattan (including Washington Square) grew unfeasible. Among those first buried on Hart Island were many veterans of the Civil War, struggling with the physical and mental aftermath of the brutal conflict. These men were dependent upon city charity and ended up in New York’s various almshouses and its public hospital, Bellevue. At the time, the US Army would not pay for veterans’ burials, so when one of them died, some stories have it, the others would bury him with improvised military honors.

Eventually, the nation’s military changed its policy and took on the responsibility of paying for all veteran burials. The remains of the Civil War vets were exhumed and reinterred in a military cemetery with full honors. Hart Island, however, continued to be the final resting place of those who die without means in New York City—the homeless, the destitute, the nameless, the lost.

Over the next century, the bodies piled up, a cross-section of the of the city’s underclass: the novelist Dawn Powell; the child actor Bobby Driscoll; sixteen of the earliest AIDS patients, taken there for fear their corpses were contagious and buried fourteen feet deep; thousands upon thousands of stillborn babies or infants who died in the hospital. Many of their mothers say they didn’t understand when they agreed to a city burial that they would never be able to visit their children’s graves. Most New Yorkers don’t have the faintest idea that Hart Island exists.

In recent years, however, something of a movement has sprung up around Hart Island, a push by homeless advocates, families of the deceased and other concerned New Yorkers to reclaim the humanity of those interred there. At the center of this effort is Melinda Hunt, an artist who has been researching the island and those laid to rest there since the early 1990s, and who runs a nonprofit advocacy group called the Hart Island Project. Hunt has been calling for the city to open the island up so that the public, especially those with family and friends buried there, can pay their respects. “In a way, Hart Island is my studio,” she says. “I’m very interested in how it changes with the city, and mirrors city policy.”

Hunt’s dream is to see jurisdiction for Hart Island transferred from the Department of Correction to the Parks Department, and ultimately for the island to become a publicly accessible park, an idea that’s been endorsed by the local community board and the entire Bronx delegation to the city council. Despite that support, Parks officials have thus far declined to take charge of the island, because, a spokesperson told The Nation, it is an “active burial site” requiring too much supervision of visitors.

Hunt’s crusade has inspired companion efforts, including a bill introduced by City council member Elizabeth Crowley to make it easier for family members of the deceased to visit the island. And last December, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit asserting that current policy violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those whose relatives are buried there, including mothers of infants.

“Family members of those buried on the island wish to visit the gravesites of their loved ones to mourn, to pray, or just to be in their presence,” according to the filing. “New York City, however, bars all such visits, choosing instead to run what should be a sacred site as a prison compound.”

A spokesman for the Department of Correction, which has been under intense scrutiny in recent months because of persistent violence at Rikers, emailed a brief statement in response to request for comment on the Hart Island policy: “The Department of Correction has administered the city cemetery for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility. In recent years, we have conducted regular monthly visits to allow family members and others to pay their respects by visiting a specially designated space within the cemetery…. [W]e continue to explore ways to meet requests of relatives seeking greater access to honor those buried on the island.”

Hunt says that the situation at Hart Island has continued the way it has for so long because there is little incentive to advocate for those who end up there. “Dead people don’t vote,” says Hunt. “There is no real constituency except families that feel like they’ve done something wrong.”

And so, what must suffice, for now, is the virtual memorial Hunt has created at her Hart Island Project website. She calls it the Traveling Cloud Museum, and it consists of an elegantly designed, easily searchable database of the more than 62,000 people buried on Hart Island since 1980. Each name—or anonymous, numbered person—is accompanied by a ticking clock that marks the amount of time that has passed since his or her body was buried. Members of the public who knew the dead are encouraged to contribute stories and photographs, and once a person is remembered in this way, the clock of anonymity stops.

Lisa Parzini, who died in 2013, when she was 52, is remembered this way: “I was a friend of Lisa’s in high school. We were in band together and worked at the A&W restaurant together. She was in flag corps and I was a majorette in the band. We had many adventures together. We marched in Jimmy Carter’s Inaugural parade in Washington…. She was so beautiful and had a fabulous smile. She loved to wear Aliage perfume and was very down to earth and fun.”


Ad Policy