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‘New York City’s family tomb’: The sad history of Hart Island

Coronavirus has created a grim new reality at the nation’s largest mass grave

Viral drone video capturing the burial of covid-19 victims on Hart Island in early April 2020 brought the elusive mass grave into the national spotlight. (Video: Adriana Usero, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Only 11 miles from Manhattan, Hart Island has been the final resting place for New York’s unclaimed and poor for over a century. The island off the Bronx was thrust into the national spotlight in early April, after the city announced it would be using the public cemetery to inter unclaimed victims of covid-19.

It is the largest mass grave in the United States. At least 1,000 bodies are buried on the island a year, and more than 1 million can be found in the plots of its potter’s field, known as City Cemetery. Hart Island’s storied history, however, started long before the coronavirus turned the state into a pandemic epicenter.

Its earliest iteration was as a training ground for soldiers during the Civil War. Purchased by the city in 1868, the land in the Long Island Sound has been home to a boys reformatory, asylum, prison, rehab center and even a Nike missile silo — the traces of which lay in abandoned structures littered across the island. The first documented burial took place on April 22, 1869, according to Melinda Hunt, director of the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization identifying and tracking burials on the island.

Burials on Hart Island, where New York’s unclaimed lie in mass graves, have risen fivefold

“Unclaimed simply means that a family did not hire a private funeral director. It doesn’t mean the person was unwanted. It doesn’t even mean that the person, the family, was impoverished. It just means that they didn’t, for whatever reason, hire a private funeral director,” Hunt said. “It has served the city through many epidemics where you have, you know, a scale of death that is unprecedented to that general particular generation.”

Those epidemics include the yellow fever and tuberculosis outbreaks of the 19th century, when the island was used as a quarantine station for those who were infected. It also proved key in handling the waves of victims associated with the spread of the great flu pandemic of 1918, when over 30,000 deaths were recorded in the city — 20,000 of which came that fall alone.

Hunt says New York City as a whole has never run out of burial space. “The city is able to recycle graves after 25 years. So after a body decompresses to skeletal remains, it’s legal for those graves to be recycled. That’s the reason New York City has never run out of burial space,” Hunt said, adding that even after the 1918 flu epidemic, the city didn’t begin recycling until it ran out of space in 1931.

Mass burials on Hart Island often hold a negative association, most likely because of the way burials have evolved throughout history, as private funerals have become the norm. However, Thomas Laqueur, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Berkeley who has been studying how the rituals of death have evolved over time, said these types of burials used to be commonplace, especially in churchyards.

“The idea of mass burials, graves, today is so problematic because it’s so rare,” Laqueur said. “In our culture [there’s] really something poignant, something unacceptable about dying unnoticed, and in dying anonymously.”

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This concept of honoring the dead was particularly relevant during the AIDS epidemic of the late ’80s and ’90s, which killed more than 100,000 people in New York. Many AIDS patients were laid to rest at Hart Island in an isolated area from other remains and in deeper individual graves because of the stigma and lack of knowledge about how AIDS spread.

Data from the New York City Council shows a spike in graves in 1988 amid the AIDS epidemic when 1,329 people were buried. The number of AIDS deaths in New York accounted for about a quarter of AIDS deaths nationwide, meaning Hart Island might be the largest cemetery for victims of the AIDS crisis, according to the city council.

The burials were long conducted by inmates, most often from Rikers Island.

“You hear people who say if you go to Hart’s, you’re going to be haunted the rest of your life,” said Saxon Palmer, a former Rikers inmate, who was on the job for the entirety of his four-month sentence in 2019. “Then most people wouldn’t come back the next week.”

But Palmer kept returning, saying he felt he could provide a service in honoring the dead.

“I could just say it humbled me. It was a humbling experience in the best way possible,” Palmer said. “I would jump at the opportunity to be back on Hart’s and do that kind of work again.”

A spokesperson for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said a dramatically smaller jail population forced the city to contract a private landscaping company to take over work on the island starting April 6. The city also faced public outcry over using inmate labor for burials amid the coronavirus outbreak. Inmates in some state prisons in New York have also worked to bottle hand sanitizer for hospital staff and other emergency responders.

“So now we have these people dead of coronavirus that may not have relatives, who don’t have the means to take care of this themselves,” said Laqueur, of Berkeley. “And we have to sort of struggle to create a place that represents they’re remaining part of the community, of the honored rather than the humiliated.”

Although news of unclaimed victims of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, being buried on Hart Island sparked questions and concerns in the city, Laqueur and Hunt maintain it is the most respectful way to bring dignity to those who have died.

“I’ve often referred to Hart Island as New York City’s family tomb. … There’s something really meaningful about that, to be buried with earlier generations,” Hunt said. “We want for people to be able to stay connected … because that’s what is going to make us feel safe in the end, that the city has honored every life.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced nuclear missiles on Hart Island. This version has been corrected to indicate they were Nike missiles.

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