Abolishing the Prison of the Dead

How New York City’s potter’s field acquired its mythos—and how we can break it down

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To get to Hart Island, a hundred-acre sliver of land in the Long Island Sound, you must first make your way to City Island, a slightly larger sliver of land off the coast of the Bronx. City Island is a small community that feels more Long Island than Bronx. Its streets are lined with charming cottages, yacht clubs, and more than a dozen seafood restaurants. Walk east on Fordham Street, and you’ll come to a restricted dock where you can catch a ferry to Hart Island—but only at 9:00 a.m. on the third Thursday of the month. The ferry will be a bare-bones, sixty-five-foot model without seats called the Michael Cosgrove; the ride is less than a mile and only takes about ten minutes.

As the ferry approaches Hart Island and leaves City Island in its wake, the societal distance between the two becomes clear. Unlike City Island, Hart doesn’t have a diner full of regulars or a crab shack or a nautical museum. When I visited in mid-August this year, what struck me first was how deserted it looked. If not for the mowed grass, tamed weeds, and handful of flower-filled planters within view, the island would seem abandoned. All the buildings within my line of sight were crumbling, condemned brick structures with blown-out windows, receding into the elements. The buildings mark Hart’s varied roles since New York City purchased it in 1868. It has variously been home to a training camp for “colored troops” during the Civil War, a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers, a workhouse for delinquent and destitute boys, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a Cold War Nike Ajax missile silo, and a rehabilitation center for people living with addiction.

But now, Hart Island is home only to the dead. More than one million New Yorkers and visitors rest here. They are buried in City Cemetery, said to be the world’s largest taxpayer-funded potter’s field, where unclaimed bodies are interred.

The first burial on Hart Island took place in 1869, when a twenty-four-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke was interred near the northern tip. She was an orphan. Burials here have been continuous over the past 150 years, and since 1875, they have involved unmarked common graves. In 2018, another 1,213 people were buried on Hart Island. People end up on Hart Island because their families cannot afford the current cost of dying, or because the morgue can’t identify them or find their next of kin. In the 1980s and 1990s, people ended up on Hart Island because they had died of AIDS, and funeral directors had been urged by their state association not to embalm or handle them. Hart Island is where stillborn babies end up when mothers are told that the city will take care of the burial; about 21 percent of the burials on the island each year are fetal remains.

Part of the reason Hart Island feels so vacant is that the Department of Corrections holds its jurisdiction. Inmates and corrections staff have been responsible for burials and maintenance here since the establishment of City Cemetery. If you are convicted of a misdemeanor in New York City and serve your sentence on Rikers Island, your work detail might be on Hart Island, burying unembalmed bodies encased in pine boxes three deep in long trenches that hold as many as 162 adults or one thousand infant and fetal remains. Pay is a dollar an hour.

The DOC keeps access to the island extremely limited. They claim this is necessary for security reasons and also because of the lack of infrastructure and the hazards of the condemned buildings and terrain. The shoreline, battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, is eroding, washing up skeletons, though shoreline restoration finally began this fall.

Grave Sights

If you want to join a once-monthly public visit, like I did, you’ll have to have the flexibility to visit on a Thursday morning, register with the DOC at least five days in advance, be prepared to furnish a government-issued photo ID, and hand over your phone at the dock. The government ID rule is a particular sticking point, punishing those who are less likely to have them—the elderly, the poor, and people of color—communities whose loved ones are also more likely to end up on Hart Island. Public visits are restricted to a wooden gazebo near the dock, though during my visit, Captain Martin Thompson, who manages the island, also permitted us a short, supervised walk in the gazebo’s vicinity. The graves are hidden from view by crumbling buildings and a thicket of trees.

Until recently, the barriers to visiting the island’s dead were even more oppressive. DOC limited visitation by appointment to relatives who possessed death certificates, and even then did not let them go past the gazebo. The city only agreed to facilitate regularly scheduled family gravesite visits when the New York Civil Liberties Union brought a class-action lawsuit in December 2014, alleging that the restrictions violated “federal constitutional rights of due process and free exercise of religion.” In late August of this year, the DOC updated its terms on who is eligible to visit the graves to include “those with close personal ties to a decedent, including . . . chosen family members, close friends, and partners.” This would allow a gravesite visit for, say, the partner of someone who died of AIDS. But the requirement that all visitors present IDs, relinquish electronic items, and submit to possible search before boarding the ferry has not gone away. Visitors still cannot take photos or videos and must be escorted by Correction Officers. The process makes paying respects virtually identical to visiting Rikers Island.

Soon, however, Hart Island may become a more accessible and less macabre place. On May 30, the New York City Council held a hearing on a package of bills that could begin to close the chasm the city has created between its marginalized dead and its living. The most consequential seeks to transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island from the DOC to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which would eliminate the requirement of high security and the use of prison labor and allow Parks to exercise its expertise in upkeep. The other bills are for creating a transportation plan for the island, establishing an office to support people in need of burial assistance, and creating a task force on public burial.

The deceased end up on Hart Island because their families cannot afford the current cost of dying, or because the morgue can’t identify them or find their next of kin.

Similar proposals have been introduced in the past, but this time, it seems like city leadership is on board. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is HIV-positive, visited the AIDS graves on the island last year, an experience that he called “emotional and overwhelming” and which spurred his current advocacy. Mayor Bill de Blasio also appears to be amenable. After the May hearing, the administration released a statement saying, “With the eventual transfer of Hart Island to the Department of Parks and Recreation, we will ensure the Island, its history and special meaning continue to be maintained and open to visitors.” The operative word is eventual—Parks does not want to take over Hart Island until burials move to an alternate off-island site, a process they claim may take several years.

Still, such a transfer would transform the island from a prison for the dead to a public green space that bears the scars of a complex history. And it might finally allow New York City and its inhabitants to reckon with how we have allowed for burials of the poor and marginalized to be handled for 150 years by the same institution that runs our jails and prisons, rendering this a secluded, secretive, and shameful place—a place we have built up in our public imagination to be an eerie, undignified final resting spot.

Last Resorts

Before visiting Hart Island, nearly everything I read about it made it seem haunting. Hart Island resurfaces in the public consciousness every few years thanks to articles that expose and explore its grim existence, with headlines like “Islands of the Undesirables: Hart Island” (Atlas Obscura) and “Like a Prison for the Dead: Welcome to Hart Island, Home to New York City’s Pauper Graves” (The Guardian). The island has acquired a mythos of being where we disappear the city’s most vulnerable, cutting them off from the rest of civilization and subjecting them to the worst fate imaginable: being forgotten, condemned for eternity through disposal in a common grave. Representative of the narrative is Nina Bernstein’s 2016 New York Times investigative feature “Unearthing the Secrets of New York’s Mass Graves,” which rightly revealed systemic failings in the burial system and reconstructed how a handful of New Yorkers made their way to the potter’s field. The article, which dubbed City Cemetery “this graveyard of last resort,” features a drone video of inmates guiding pine boxes into a trench. The island looks barren and gloomy here, almost gray-washed, compounding the article’s creepy feel.

Bernstein highlights how the New Yorkers she zooms in on did not freely choose to be buried on Hart Island, emphasizing the indignity their dead bodies faced. There is Gwendolyn Burke, eighty-nine, who died alone in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Harlem in 1999. Students at Albert Einstein College of Medicine dissected her before she was buried, due to a New York State law that stipulated unclaimed bodies be made available to medical and mortuary schools. (Shortly after Bernstein’s article, New York state lawmakers banned the practice.) There is Constance Mirabelli, ninety-one, of the West Village, a widow who was placed under court-appointed guardianship. She had purchased a plot in a Catholic cemetery in Queens, but the lawyer who served as her guardian did not follow her wishes. This story was perhaps especially distressing to readers of the Times, as it seems to suggest that we are all vulnerable to rest in an unmarked grave on an island removed from civilization, even those of us who can afford otherwise. Simultaneous with Bernstein’s sprawling feature, the Times addressed such fears in the helpful explainer “How to Avoid the Fate of a Common Grave.”

A City Council plan would transform Hart Island from a prison for the dead to a public green space that bears the scars of a complex history.

More representative of those interred on Hart Island is Zarramen Gooden of the Bronx, who died in a bike accident at seventeen in 1999. His family could not afford a $6,000 burial fee and were left with no other option but Hart Island. Most of the island’s dead—approximately 62 percent, according to City Council—have identified next of kin who chose a public burial, a fraction clarified by the fact that the average cost of a funeral in New York City is now $10,000, excluding cemetery fees. Even a simple cremation without a service can cost from $700 to $3,000. And a city cemetery plot can be an exorbitant expense, depending on location. On Staten Island, a basic plot can go for less than $3,000; a single plot at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, on the other hand, now costs $19,000. Cemeteries charge additional grave opening fees that can add about $2,000 to the bill. While the city does provide burial assistance in some cases, they will only contribute up to $900 for a burial costing no more than $1,700. It is easy to see how Hart Island might become a family’s only option to bury their dead.

But it was not until I visited Hart Island that I realized how conditional its image as a grim last resort might be. Whether or not you believe that buried bodies are at eternal rest, Hart Island could be a serene place for both the living and the dead—if Parks gains jurisdiction and lifts the cloud of criminalization that currently shrouds it. Sitting on a pew in the gazebo near the dock, I noticed how the breeze off the Long Island Sound kept the air cool and fresh even as the sun beat down. I listened to the calls of the birds that fly in off the water and spotted a giant osprey nest off the dock. I took in the lush August green of the surrounding fields. And I thought about how I was visiting on Assumption Thursday, which in the Catholic Church marks the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven. I’m lapsed now, but I found resonance in the message carved into a headstone at the foot of the gazebo:

BLESSED ARE THE POOR
IN SPIRIT FOR THEIRS IS
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

MY CHILD
PEACE I LEAVE TO YOU
MY PEACE I GIVE TO YOU

THE ALMIGHTY
HAS HIS OWN PURPOSES
HE MUST HAVE LOVED THEM
TO HAVE MADE SO MANY OF THEM

CRY NOT FOR US
FOR WE ARE WITH THE FATHER
NO LONGER DO WE CAST SHADOWS
ON THE GROUND AS YOU DO
WE ARE AT PEACE

Reading this inscription, the fundamental unjustness of how we have allowed City Cemetery to devolve into a secretive and ignominious place struck me. However significant, it’s not just DOC’s presence that has given it its stigma. People dread potter’s fields.

The term has its origins in the Bible, referring to the story of Judas Iscariot, to whom the high priests of Jerusalem gave thirty pieces of silver as a reward for betraying Jesus. Judas returned the silver and hanged himself after realizing his sin, but the silver, rendered blood money, could not be deposited. Instead, the priests used it to buy a plot of infertile, clay-filled land—“the potter’s field”—in which to bury strangers.

The American Way of Death

Most people fear the fate of the potter’s field because we have invested so much importance in how we care for our dead—even now, as we have medicalized death and distanced ourselves from it (particularly in America, the only country in the world in which embalming is a standard practice), we imbue the dead body with immense meaning. To think of human remains as merely a bag of bones and flesh repels us; as Julia Kristeva writes in her seminal essay on abjection, “corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live”—that is, the inevitability of death and decay.

In The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas W. Laqueur grapples with the imaginative work the living enlist dead bodies in. He begins with the story of Diogenes, as related by Cicero:

[Diogenes the Cynic] ordered himself to be thrown anywhere without being buried. And when his friends replied, “What! to the birds and the beasts?’” “By no means, saith he, “place my staff near me, that I may drive them away.” “How can you do that,” they answer, “for you will not perceive them?” “How am I then injured by being torn by those animals, if I have no sensation?”

The Cynic’s point is that his corpse doesn’t matter; Laqueur’s book is largely about why humans have rejected Diogenes. He argues that the dead body “has always been enchanted: powerful, dangerous, preserved, revered, feared, an object of ritual, a thing to be reckoned with.” We may concede that when someone dies their body becomes a mass of matter that will decay over time, but we may also have a need to see the corpse as something more than what Kristeva calls “the utmost of abjection . . . death infecting life.” Our cultural contract demands magical thinking around the corpse—a belief that some connection between the person and their remains persists. Like Kristeva, Laqueur writes that this is in part because the dead remind us of our own mortality, and “it is so difficult to imagine ourselves not being.” So we imagine dead bodies “as social beings” instead, “creatures who need to be eased out of this world and settled safely into the next and into memory” through rituals and rites, religious or otherwise.

When the dead are not respected—when they are treated against their will more like Diogenes wished his corpse to be treated—it rends our social fabric by curtailing not only their future but their past. As Laqueur puts it, “to treat a dead body as if it were ordinary organic matter . . . [is] to deny the existence of the community from which it came, to deny its humanity.” While it’s not quite true that bodies on Hart Island are treated as “ordinary organic matter”—they are laid in coffins (though rudimentary ones) and buried beneath the earth (though the trenches, due to their large capacity, are often left open for extended periods)—neither are they treated as fully “social beings.” Burial on Hart Island means removal to a place where their community cannot find them, in ground that does not bear any signs of who they once were.

If the cemetery as an expression of racial and class hierarchies is relatively new, that’s in part because the cemetery itself is relatively new. From the Middle Ages to the 1800s in the Western Christian world, we buried the dead in churchyards—crowded plots of land adjacent to churches, as Laqueur writes, “in the heart of the living community.” Cemeteries, which are “gathered at the periphery of the settlements of the living,” are an invention of the Enlightenment era and the Industrial Revolution; the development of the City Cemetery on Hart Island roughly coincides with the period that we pushed the dead into their own suburbs, away from us—allegedly because they were dangerous to the living. Churchyards were deemed overcrowded, smelly, unhygienic, and (without evidence) spreading disease; cemeteries made “the dead clean.” They also made burial a capitalistic endeavor.

During the churchyard regime in England, people were excluded from burial in the parish churchyard if they were nonbelievers, criminals, traitors, or suicides, but not because they could not afford it. Laqueur writes, “everyone had a common law right to burial in the parish where she died, which was usually but not always where she had lived.” This all changed with the rise of privately owned cemeteries, when a decent burial became something the privileged could purchase and the poor could not. It was as sprawling garden cemeteries like Père Lachaise in Paris and Green-Wood in Brooklyn were built that a public burial in a common plot began to seem depraved.

In a crowded churchyard, everyone’s remains would eventually co-mingle, and pre-designated plots were not promised. At a garden cemetery, one could purchase a grave and monument “with all the privacy, comfort, and honor of bourgeois life; a comfortable bed in quiet surroundings.” Green-Wood attracted five hundred thousand visitors a year in the 1860s with its sculptures, mausoleums, and winding paths. At The Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, families would visit to picnic and tend garden plots above the graves. Garden cemeteries often functioned as “public” parks during the nineteenth century, offering fresh air and tastefully curated vegetation—you could visit your loved ones as they rested under a bed of roses. A burial in a potter’s field like Hart Island, in contrast, was not tranquil, was not honorable, and signaled not care but erasure—then, as now, conflating the condition of poverty with moral character.

Potter’s Field of Dreams

The person who has done the most to peel back the layers of secrecy and stigma from Hart Island is not a public official. She doesn’t even call herself an activist. She is an interdisciplinary artist named Melinda Hunt. At the May 30 City Council hearing, chair of the committee on health Mark Levine said that Hunt has “almost single-handedly dragged this issue into the public spotlight.”

Hunt and I met in mid-July to talk about her work and the proposal to transfer jurisdiction to Parks. She told me that she first came to document Hart Island almost thirty years ago, in 1991, when she was teaching an intermedia class at SUNY Purchase. The class was putting together an installation on homelessness when Hunt learned of the potter’s field. While her students found Hart Island too difficult to touch, Hunt and photographer Joel Sternfeld would go on to spend three years documenting the landscape, the burials, and the Rikers Island inmates who worked there. Hunt and Sternfeld’s photos of inmates working in the trenches recall Jacob Riis’s Hart Island photos from more than a hundred years earlier. At the time of their project, researchers could access the island, but families still could not.

A cemetery plot can be an exorbitant expense; a single plot at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn now costs $19,000.

Since then, Hunt’s work has included a censored sculpture installation planned for City Hall Park in 1993 that was to include tablets featuring the writings of Rikers Island inmates who performed burials. “What they wrote about was that people from their communities had disappeared onto Hart Island,” she said. But a federal advisory committee formed to commemorate the nearby African Burial Ground protested against the installation, arguing that it would “demean the sanctity” of the then newly discovered site of the remains of eighteenth-century black people. Other projects have included a series of ink drawings of people buried in City Cemetery set against landscape photos of the island and a documentary film following four families searching for records of their loved ones. Hunt’s Hart Island work has evolved over time in order to accommodate the new information she has uncovered. “Understanding what a problem is determines what kind of shape it should have in an artwork,” Hunt said.

Now, she runs the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization that maintains a searchable database of public burial records since 1980. Prior to Hunt’s painstaking work of building the database using Freedom of Information requests for the DOC’s handwritten ledgers, there was no way for people to access these records. Hunt received the burial records in 2008; it was not until 2013 that the DOC finally made its own online database. Records prior to 1977 are held in the Municipal Archives, but a fire in the late 1970s destroyed records from 1956 to 1960 and some from the 1970s.

In 2014, Hunt created the Traveling Cloud Museum, a website that features an interactive map of Hart Island, captured using drones. Hunt used GPS locations to map out the grave plots; clicking on a plot number opens a list of all the people buried therein. Each name is accompanied by a ticking “clock of anonymity” that measures how long they have been buried before someone adds a story about them. “The Traveling Cloud Museum is a structure for all of these stories that people contribute,” Hunt said. “It’s building a place for this island to be seen—to make it visible.”

On the Traveling Cloud Museum, you can read about Harmon Eddie McCraw, who died on December 31, 2017, at seventy. Eddie is remembered as “a well-liked friend, a gay man and retired pastry chef.” He is pictured with his tortoiseshell cat Suzy. When I read about how he adapted his love of gardening to taking care of houseplants when he became homebound due to illness, I started to cry. Clicking down the list of profiles with stories, I also found Manuel Colon, who died on May 14, 2015, at forty-eight. Manuel’s story is written by his son, in Spanish and then in English:

Siempre vivirás en nuestros corazones. Te amamos y recordaremos siempre. Recordar es vivir. Te queremos. Tu hijo, Manuel.

You will always live in our hearts. We love you and will always remember you. Remembering is living. We love you. Your son, Manuel.

The entries for people who died of AIDS are marked with a red ribbon. Two are for brothers, John and Lawrence Homer, who both died at twenty-nine, Lawrence in 1989 and John two years later. Their surviving brother writes of how they grew up on the Lower East Side. “I’m grief stricken to think of John and Larry dying alone,” he says, “but I’m grateful for the Hart Island Project for allowing me to find them.”

Hunt also frequently accompanies family members on their gravesite visits, and she told me that she seeks to frame Hart Island as a beautiful place for them, because that’s how she sees it. “Whenever I go with families, it’s a great comfort to them not to talk about it as a shameful place, but to talk about it as, ‘This is a great place, this is going to be a really beautiful place where your family is buried. I know you didn’t have a choice, but we’re going to do right by you,’” she said.

That it is Hunt, not the city, who has connected people with their dead loved ones on Hart Island is just one indictment of the way New York has failed its poor and marginalized. In the Traveling Cloud Museum, Hunt has created a virtual City Cemetery where the dead can finally be memorialized as individuals and as members of families or communities, where they can be made to do the cultural work of continuity that Laqueur writes about. That is why I cried when I first explored the Traveling Cloud Museum, but not when I visited the gazebo cut off from the graves—Hunt’s work allowed me to understand the depths of loss that the architecture of the island conceals. “[It] is really an intervention to reconnect the city with its cemetery,” Hunt told me. But Hunt’s dogged advocacy, and that of Hart Island Project volunteers and of families of the Hart Island dead, cannot take the place of a collective reckoning with the island’s history—an impossible feat for as long as it remains under the jurisdiction of Corrections.

Melinda Hunt frequently accompanies family members on their gravesite visits, and she seeks to frame Hart Island as a beautiful place for them, because that’s how she sees it.

The Hart Island project has been active in advocating for the transfer to Parks, which Hunt points out has a long history with the city’s potter’s fields. Before there was City Cemetery on Hart Island, the city buried its indigent in Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, Bryant Park, and on Randall’s and Wards Island. “Historically, it’s their history. The whole Parks Department was formed around these burial grounds that closed,” Hunt said. “Madison Square Park was the first. The common council determined that because it was a burial ground, Madison Square would be left open as a public square forever.”

For Hunt, it’s crucial that Parks continue burying on Hart Island. If public burials move to another far-off location when Parks takes over, opening the island to the public would not fully repair the wounds of the potter’s field—it would continue to obscure such burials from our sight, marking them out as unworthy of witness. Hunt’s vision for doing right by those buried there involves taking advantage of the fact that a public burial is a green burial. “If I were doing it, I would completely reforest it, and have it be a wilderness park,” she said. She envisions a woodland where people could navigate using their phones, with cloud-based mapping and storytelling—a sort of Traveling Cloud Museum in real life. “The way to normalize this is to have people who do have a choice choosing this green burial,” Hunt said. Our taxes pay for City Cemetery, and we can reframe the way we think about public burials, she said. “You’ve already paid for your burial—make it the cemetery you want it to be.”

But Hunt points out that “it’s not just about deciding what it should be—it’s about having a way of talking about it.” Hart Island sits at the nexus of issues Americans would prefer to look away from: death, grief, poverty, social marginalization. What we have allowed to happen to the Hart Island dead also tells us about what we allow to happen to the living. Maybe we’re ready to talk about that now.

Kristen Martin is working on a collection of essays that meditates on grief, death, and life. Her essays and reviews have been published in Literary Hub, The Cut, BOMB, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and has taught at Columbia, Baruch College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she consults with writers at the Columbia University Writing Center and teaches writing at NYU.

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