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.
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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.