Dancing with the Idea of Death
Rachmaninoff: Not back in the U.S.S.R.

In Death They Were Not Alone—a guide to The New York Times coverage of Hart Island from 1869-2016

Screen Shot 2016-09-25 at 2.12.05 PMI admit that I am conflicted about the controversy surrounding Hart Island, the potter's field that has served New York City since the 1840s.  Isolated on an island and operated by the New York City Department of Correction, Hart Island is the last resting place of approximately 1 million New Yorkers -- each in an individual casket but stacked in trench graves.  Many view this as disrespectful to New York's indigent dead because of the limited access, the lack of individualized graves, the use of correctional labor, and the use of trench graves.  Many other cities, on the other hand, cremate the indigent dead or donate their cadavers to a variety of institutions and educational facilities, including mortuary schools, dental schools, and medical schools.  Which of these options is more or less respectful? 

The trench graves at Hart Island, shown in an 1890 photograph by Jacob Riis:


The New York Times has written extensively about Hart Island over the years.  If you want to get up to speed on the history of this unique burial ground and the modern controversy surrounding it, you can do so without every leaving The New York Times website. 

The Old Potter's Field (The New York Times, May 31, 1853)

The City Authorities are cutting a street through the old Potter's Field, in East Fiftieth-street, where so many victims of the Cholera were hurriedly interred in 1832. The coffins were then, in many instances, stacked one upon another; and now, in digging through the hill, the remains of twenty coffins may be seen thus piled together. It is altogether an unpleasant sight, but does not seem to cause any interest beyond the immediate neighborhood.

New Potter's Field (The New York Times, March 29, 1854)

A proposition is before the Board of Governors for the purchase of additional lands on Ward's Island for the purposes of a City Cemetery, or Potter's Field. It is time that the remains of paupers were interred in some quarter better fitted for their last resting-place than the one now used on Randall's Island. A more disgusting spectacle can scarcely be conceived than the trenches filled with coffins, loosely covered with earth and subject to trespass, which now receive the bodies of the City's poor. The old Potter's Field was a disgrace to the City, years ago; and continued use has made it much worse. The dictates of propriety point to the obvious requirement of a new location.

In the Potter's Field (The New York Times, March 3, 1878)

... "The City Cemetery ... or the Potter's Field," as it is commonly called, was started on Hart's Island in 1869, and has consequently been in use for nine years. It covers about four acres of land, less rather than more, and there are buried in it between 30,000 and 40,000 bodies. It is impossible to tell just how many, because for the first five years they were buried, helter-skelter, without any record or any system, and their number can only be estimated. There were so many buried in these first five years, however, that the whole ground is full of them, and it is impossible to dig a pit in any part of the lot without turning out dozens and dozens of decaying coffins. In 1874 the burying in regular order was begun, and now any body that may afterward be claimed by friends can be exhumed, as many bodies are every year. ...

A little point of land juts out into the waters of Long Island Sound. It is not high above the water's edge, and in every gale the spray flies over it and wets the new-made grave. The wind howls furiously as it skurries by. This is the Potter's Field. Twenty or thirty men are digging a great trench. Off to the right, almost at the water's side, a dozen more are digging a smaller one. Another trench, half-filled with coffins and earth, is between them.

"We put 150 coffins in each grave," says the foreman. "Each trench is 40 feet long by 14 wide and 6 feet deep. First, we put in two rows of coffins on the bottom, 25 in each row, making a layer of 50 coffins. A little earth is thrown in, just a sprinkling, and then another layer of 50 is made; a little more earth, then 50 more, and the trench is covered up. There is plenty of earth on top. Every coffin has its number burned in the lid, and a record is kept of each one."

How these poor fellows are numbered to death! A thief goes through the General Sessions as case No. 285, in the Tombs he is No. 42, on Blackwell's Island he is No. 1,104, in the hospital he is No. 96, and he is buried with another number burned into his coffin-lid. He has no name.

The coffins that have an "R" chalked on their ends are from the hospitals. Their contents have been dissected, and no man knows their names. There may even be parts of two or more bodies in each coffin. They are put into an unnumbered trench. They are past recognition.  ...

The trenches that are filled and closed are neatly kept. Smooth and level, surrounded by neat strips of sod, and marked, each of them, by a white board, they look almost like graves. ...

Prisoners Build Memorial to the Dead (The New York Times, September 9, 1948)

An unusual instance of unpaid devotion to a sentimental but laborious task was related yesterday at Hart Island, scene of the City Cemetery, which is generally thought of as potter's field.  On a high point, inmates of the penitentiary, which shares the island, are building a tall white monument to the city's unbefriended dead.

Imposing in a field the other features of which are unobtrustive and rather matte of fact, the memorial rises thirty feet from a base thirty-eight feet square. Around it are the as yet unlandscaped graves, marked only with small concrete blocks. Modern and dignified in style, the design of the monument was suggested by Edward Dros, warden, and perfected through the cooperation of the City Art Commission and Robert Moses,  City Construction Coordinator.

The work of building and creating the wooden forms for the monument and mixing and pouring the concrete has been in progress for three months, and is expected to take a month or two more. It has been done by some of the comparatively mild criminal offenders who people the island, under the supervision of Warden Dros and his staff.

The prisoners are not paid for their work—they receive 50 cents upon discharge, after serving their terms of six months and less for such things as disorderly conduct and drunkenness. But, Mr. Dros said, they have found such satisfaction in their creative work that some have chosen to spend their leisure time at their tasks. Mostly, they are unskilled, but they have learned to handle trowels and hammers. ...

The white shaft, which overlooks Orchard Beach and City Island, will be a memorial to the 431,784 persons who have been buried on the island since the potter's field was established there on April 20, 1869. Except for a granite cross erected some years ago by a mission society, it is the dead's only tombstone. The new monument has a gold cross at its front, another on the back.

Members of the Jewish faith are not buried on the island, but receive free interment, when necessary, from a Jewish society. Catholics who have received the last rites of their church are placed in separate, consecrated plots. Last year these numbered 213. There were, in 1947, 1,553 other adults buried on the island, 8,496 babies. Severed limbs are also buried there, and these numbered 1,150 in 1947.

The bodies are buried in plain pine boxes—the known dead are shrouded in treated paper, the others have their clothing and possessions buried with them. The graves are forty-five feet long, fifteen wide, and six deep, and the boxes are set in them three deep, according to a system that permits efficient disinterment of any particular body. About twice a week, graves are open and pine boxes removed for more ceremonious reburial elsewhere.

The Potter's Field occupies forty-one of the island's 103 acres.

Nan Robertson, About New York: City's Unclaimed Dead Lie on Lonely Tip of Hart Island Off the Bronx (The New York Times, September 22, 1958)

At the head of Long Island Sound, beyond the East River, there is a little-known island. In late summer, field asters spread a blanket of blue across its treeless north-eastern tip. In winter, it lies shrouded in fog or swept by icy winds.

Nearly 500,000 are buried there. In life, they were the loneliest of all the millions who crowd this city. No friends wept for them. Now they lie together in potter's field.

Ten years ago this month, a monument to New York's unclaimed dead was erected on Hart Island. It bears a simple legend: Peace.

Hart Island has been a potter's field for eighty-nine years. Before, the city buried the unclaimed dead in what is now Washington Square. The second potter's field lies under the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street.

The first to be brought to Hart Island was Louisa Van Slyke, "born at sea and died alone at Charity Hospital, age 24." She came in a plain pine box like the others after her. She was buried on April 20, 1869.

Those who dedicated the field that day took their text from the Gospel of St. Matthew.

"Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that He was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests ... And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field to bury strangers in."

3,822 Taken Last Year

Last year, 3,822 of the city's forgotten were taken to potter's field. Some were old and tired. Others had been cut down in their prime.  A few were nameless. All were paupers.

No flags and no flowers draped the coffins in which they lay. No tombstones mark their graves. Their pallbearers were prisoners from the city workhouse at the southern end of Hart Island.

Twice a week, every week of the year, New York's unclaimed dead are taken to the City Mortuary on East Twenty-ninth Street.

At 9 o'clock one recent morning, while Manhattan workers and housewives poured out into a dazzling sun, a dark green truck backed into an alleyway beside the mortuary. On its side was an insignificant gold seal: "Department of Hospitals, City of New York." One by one, plain pine coffins were carried onto the truck. There were thirty-six in all, an unusually small number.

The doors were closed and the truck rolled north: up the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive through flowing traffic; on past homes and parks and construction sites in the East Bronx in the East Bronx, all busy with life.

At 9:52 A.M. the truck rumbled onto a dock at City Island. Fisherman lined along the sides turned their heads briefly. A fleet of little boats bobbed in a freshening sea.  The waiting ferry swallowed the truck and throbbed away from shore.

A mile to the east, across a glittering strip of water, lay Hart Island. Red brick prison buildings clustered under a grove of trees at the southern end. To the north the slope rose smoothly to a single white shaft in potter's field.

Swaying, the truck ground up a gravel road to the monument. The wind ruffled a knee-high plateau of grass and blue flowers. there were no markers, only a huge, raw wound in the earth.

The grave for these homeless had been dug days before. Sixteen men in gray over-alls and caps stood near, leaning on their spades.

Mute and unsmiling, twelve prisoners shifted the heavy burdens from the truck to their shoulders, then laid the long pine boxes gently on the grass.

The quiet was broken by the scratch of chisels as identifying numbers were cut deep into the soft pine. A red-faced guard, moving his lips, checked off each number against his sheet.

For One Last Time

Then the men in gray wrote the names of the dead for the last time. They were inscribed on the coffins, in big, black strokes of indelible crayon.

Far overhead in the clean blue sky the gulls wheeled, crying. The scintillating, sunstruck waters of the sound lapped the shore. Far to the southwest, Manhattan's mid-town skyscrapers pierced the sparkling air.

When all was ready, four men lifted the first coffin and shuffled slowly to the mass grave. The gaping trench was 40 feet long and 15 feet wide. Next spring the scar will be healed by grass and flowers.

The wind rose and the gusts that shivered in from the sound carried the clang of a bellboy, tolling its fitful warning.

Two men stood in the trench to receive the coffins, which they piled three high, packed close together, row on row.

There were no rites. When the last pine box had been slipped into place, the prisoners stroked a blanket of earth over all who lay so closely there.

In death they were not alone.

Michael Goodwin, Hart Island Full of Possibilities — and Not Much Else (The New York Times, March 19, 1978)

Somehow, it doesn't seem quite fair. On one hand, virtually everybody speaks well of the place, even if many people do pronounce its name incorrectly. They say how beautiful it is. what an excellent location it has and how many wonderful things could be done there. And yet, when it comes time to deciding what precisely is to be done with it, Hart Island—not Hart's —always seems to be relegated to the role of human dumping ground.

Over the years, the long, thin swath of sand, woods and fields, located where the East River meets the Long Island Sound, has played host to several different prisons, a skid‐row drying‐out center and a treatment facility for drug addicts. Its other major use has been as burial ground, first for Civil War soldiers and, for the last 100 years, as the eternal home of the city's paupers, with 650,000 buried there and more arriving every week.

Occasionally, the island has been the object of a developer's dreams, In the 1920's , a black developer, Solomon Riley, planned to develop a “Negro Coney Island” amusement park there, which he projected would cost $160,000. And a 1972 study commissioned by the city concluded that available options included developing the island into a residential‐resort complex, making it “a sort of Monte Carlo or Riviera for Long Island Sound.”

Nothing ever came of these or various other schemes, though, leaving Hart Island to watch quietly from the side as many of the surrounding areas were born, expanded and deteriorated. And even now, when undeveloped sites of natural beauty are almost nonexistent in the city, the future looks like more of the same. For, while city officials and private citizens call it an important resource and a valuable tract of real estate, the only plans for the island are to continue using it as the location for the Potter's Field cemetery.

“It's a beautiful island,” said Ralph Zinn, the principal planner in the Bronx office of the Department of City Planning. “It's got a magnificent beach on the eastern shore, some very interesting vegetation and everything. It could make a luxurious residential area, or the city ever gets into legalized gambling, it would make a very good place for casinos.”

But after promoting the island the way an advertising brochure might, Mr. Zinn added a statement that seems to typify the fate of Hart Island. “Frankly,” he said, “we just haven't gotten around to doing anything with yet.”

And so, while nearby City Island, with road connections to the rest of the Bronx, continues to grow in stature as an enclave for boating and seafood restaurants and Roosevelt Island gets housing and the Tramway, Hart Island remains what it always has been—ignored by those who have a choice. Even the state power authority dropped the island from its list of alternate sites for the large power plant it wants to build in Staten Island, and the most recent tenant, the state‐run Phoenix House addict treatment center, packed up and moved off the island about 18 months ago.

Hart Island, located about three-quarters of a mile east of City Island, is nearly a mile long and from one‐third to one‐eighth of a mile wide. One of the larger of the nearly 50 islands that surround the city “ mainland,” it has a land mass of 130 acres (an acre measures 43,560 square feet). By comparison, Roosevelt Island covers about 150 acres and City Island 250.

Despite its advantages, though, Hart Island is a long way from being a developer's delight. There are no electric cables or roads connecting the island to the city and estimates on the cost of round-the-clock ferry service go as high as $1 million a year.

In addition, 45 acres, or about one-third of the island, are reserved for the pauper cemetery. Most of the cemetery is on 25 acres at the northern end of the island, though some bodies also are buried on a small plot on the southern end. While some people have questioned whether there are not more economical and practical ways of handling pauper corpses, such as cremation, the city has no plans to change its policy.

The island is currently held by the city's Department of Real Estate, which acts as a custodian of all unused property. A spokesman said no sale price would be set unless someone actually wanted to buy the island.

Standing on City Island and looking across the channel, a visitor could not be blamed for feeling that Hart Island lives. There are groves of oak, poplar and horse chestnut trees and a number of red‐brick buildings are visible. Most prominent are the three‐story structure. that served as the administration building for several of the prisons and as headquarters for Phoenix House, several two‐story structures and a large smoke stack from a power station. Sea gulls and crows can be seen taking off and landing.

But as the city‐operated ferry, the only means of transportation across the 90-foot-deep chanel, nears the island on one of its seven trips a day, the same visitor gets a different perspective. The docking slip for the ferry badly needs repairing. It no longer can be raised and lowered without the help of the ferry's engines, and several of the hoisting ropes have been tied where they broke.

Stepping or driving onto the island, one feels as though he is entering a large abandoned building. The evidence of neglect and vandalism is everywhere. Many of the windows in the nearly 20 structures, all vacant, have been broken. Graffitti paint covers parts of the paved roads. The small, wooden building that once was the office of the prison warden lies in a charred heap. Here and there are piles of refuse. Several burned‐out automobile hulks dot the landscape.

“I just can't see how anybody could ever put this place to use again,” said Joseph Bartels, the chief engineer for the Department of Correction on Rikers Island. He worked on Hart Island for 28 years, until the department left the island in 1966, and his grandfather worked there for nearly 50 years.

On one of his recent trips to the island to check on the portable generator kept there for the Bikers Island inmates who handle the burials in Potter's Field, Mr. Bartels stood near a complex of buildings and recalled how some were used when as many as 1,800 inmates lived there.

William J. Dean, Potter's Field: Aisle of the Dead (The New York Times, May 25, 1981)

''And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood.

And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in.'' - Matthew 27:6-7

The Old Negroes' Burial Ground, north of Chambers Street, became the potter's field for New York City sometime before 1755, serving as a burial place for slaves, paupers, and criminals, and for American prisoners during the Revolutionary War, when the British occupied the city.

For a time, Union Square and Madison Square were potter's fields.In 1797, the city decided to purchase the present site of Washington Square for this purpose. Fifty-seven prominent New Yorkers, among them Alexander Hamilton, strenously objected, pointing out in a petition to the common council that the field ''lies in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accomodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place....'' The common council, however, rejected the petition.

As New York expanded northward, a potter's field farther removed from the center of the city became desirable. The potter's field at Washington Square was abandoned in 1825 for a public burying ground on land lying between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, from 40th to 42d Streets, the present site of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. Subsequent potter's fields were situated between Fourth and Lexington Avenues, from 48th to 50th Streets, and on Randall's Island and Ward's Island.

In 1869, the city purchased Hart Island. A portion of the 100-acre island was designated as a potter's field. Louisa Van Slyke, an orphan who died alone in Charity Hospital at the age of 24, became the first person to be buried there. Since then, more than 600,000 paupers have joined her.

Hart Island continues today as the city's potter's field. Reached by ferry from City Island, in the Bronx, Hart Island more resembles a New England coastal scene than a city graveyard. Fog. Buoy bells. Fishermen on their boats in yellow rain gear. Mussel shells washed ashore at high tide. Swamp grass swaying in the breeze. Wild ducks and Canadian geese.

The island's scenic beauty is deceptive. Abandoned buildings, once institutions for cholera victims, prisoners, and drug addicts, come into view. Building doors swing on shattered hinges. Old-fashioned iron lampposts stand blind. Bleachers removed Ebbets Field rot in an overgrown meadow.

Dark thoughts intrude with the arrival from Manhattan of the Health and Hospitals Corporation morgue wagon. Today's delivery, each in a separate pine coffin: 24 adults and 29 babies. The adults range in age from 30 to 88 years. One died in a Bowery flophouse, another in the South Ferry terminal, a third on a southbound subway at York Street, in Brooklyn. The life span of the babies ranged from three minutes to 23 days.

The morgue wagon moves along the bumpy dirt road to the grave site for adults. The rough pine coffins are unloaded by sentenced inmates from Rikers Island. Here the poor bury the poor. A prisoner writes the dead person's name on the coffin, or the word ''unknown.'' A trench, eight feet deep and 150 long, has been dug to receive the coffins. They are placed in the trench in columns three boxes high. Prisoners cover the coffins with earth. Nowhere more than on Hart Island do the living feel no envy for the dead. In place of individual headstones, a marker will be laid to identify the spot where this group of paupers is buried.

The morgue wagon proceeds to the trench for baby burials. These babies were alive for too short a time to be given names. A nearby stone cross bears the legend: ''He calleth his own by name.'' By what name are the nameless called?

For the poor, death brings no peace. After the cemetery detail returns to Rikers Island, vandals arrive by boat. Already they have removed everything of value from the island, including the bell in the church belfry, and now they desecrate graves.

In New York City, we need police officers to protect even the dead.

Bess Lovejoy and Allison C. Meier, The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers (The New York Times, March 18, 2014)

On New York City maps, Hart Island drifts off the edge of the Bronx like an amputated leg. Among overgrown vegetation and ramshackle buildings spread out over 101 acres, about a million bodies are buried — the homeless, the poor, the stillborn, the unidentified and the unclaimed. The island is said to be home to the largest active potter’s field in America. Until recently, it was off limits to all but the most persistent.

Hart Island is controlled by the city’s Department of Correction. The burials — up to 1,500 a year — are performed by inmates from Rikers Island who are paid 50 cents an hour. Common graves that stretch for 70 feet hold about 150 adults each, while plots for babies hold a thousand stillborn fetuses and infants interred in miniature coffins. (There is at least one individual grave on the island: the first child to die of AIDS in New York.) For years, the only public access to the island has been sporadic “closure visits,” in which family members of the dead can step into a rough-hewed gazebo near the docks, the graves nowhere nearby.

But last Wednesday, five New York City Council members reintroduced legislation to transfer Hart Island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. A separate bill would establish regular public ferry service to the island. Together, the changes could one day allow anyone to visit the island. They come in large part thanks to a determined local artist named Melinda Hunt, who has been pushing for years to open up the island cemetery.

At one point, Manhattan was home to about a hundred graveyards. But during the 19th century, rising real estate values and fears that decomposing cadavers were producing an unhealthful “miasma” prompted New Yorkers to move their dead out to Brooklyn, Queens and beyond. Of course, some of New York’s dead were never buried in the heart of town: The earliest black residents were interred outside the boundaries of the New Amsterdam settlement, near today’s African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan. Then, as now, the hierarchies of the dead reflected the hierarchies of the living. Today that hierarchy continues on Hart Island, where the city’s poorest are laid to rest by criminals — the untouchables burying the untouchables. ...

Nina Bernstein, Mourners Make First Visit to New York's Potter's Field (The New York Times, July 19, 2015)

The lonely island where New York City buries its unclaimed dead lies off the coast of the Bronx, off-limits to living mourners for so long that it has sometimes seemed like a mirage.

For years, family members and their advocates battled the city for the right to visit the unmarked graves of loved ones buried on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field at the western end of Long Island Sound. The city refused such visits, with rare exceptions, citing safety concerns and the rules of the Correction Department, which controls the island and uses inmate labor for burials.

But on Sunday morning, under the settlement terms of a federal class-action lawsuit that sought regular grave site access for relatives, a small group was allowed to stand beside the very stretch of ground that holds their kin. ...

This city has proved numerous times that spaces for the dead can become spaces for the living. But Hart Island offers us a powerful opportunity to preserve the memory of the departed, and to mourn in a place where so many have already been forgotten once.

Nina Bernstein, Officials Object to Plan to Turn Hart Island Burial Site Over to Parks Dept. (The New York Times, January 20, 2016)

It was a vision to beguile many New Yorkers: an all-but-forgotten island in Long Island Sound that a noisy city would transform into its most tranquil park. And there was a concurrent vision for the families of the dead long buried there, on Hart Island: a cemetery now run like a prison would become a place to freely mourn.

But at a City Council hearing on Wednesday on a bill to transfer jurisdiction over the island’s 101 acres from the Department of Correction to the parks department, there was opposition by all the city agencies affected. In the end, the vision came to seem more like a dream than a quick solution to years of criticism and litigation over Hart Island and its role as the city’s only potter’s field.

The parks department does not want it. “The operation of a public cemetery falls well outside of the agency’s expertise and available resources,” Matt Drury, director of government relations for the department, testified. “It is fair to estimate that any renovation of the island to allow use for the general public could cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars.”

Nina Bernstein, Unearthing the Secrets of New York's Mass Graves (The New York Times, May 15, 2016)

Over a million people are buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. A New York Times investigation uncovers some of their stories and the failings of the system that put them there. ...

[This article includes a detailed map of Hart Island and the sites of burials over the years.]

John Woo, Alexandra Garcia, Alon Sicherman and Micah Dickbauer, This is Hart Island (The New  York Times, May 15, 2016)

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Nina Bernstein, New York State Bans Use of Unclaimed Dead as Cadavers Without Consent (The New York Times, August 19, 2016)

A bill that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York signed into law this week concerns the dead as much as the living and signals a big change in public attitudes about what one owes the other.

The law bans the use of unclaimed bodies as cadavers without written consent by a spouse or next of kin, or unless the deceased had registered as a body donor. It ends a 162-year-old system that has required city officials to appropriate unclaimed bodies on behalf of medical schools that teach anatomical dissection and mortuary schools that train embalmers. ...

The city has offered at least 4,000 bodies to medical or mortuary programs in the past decade, records show. Among these, more than 1,877 were selected for use before being buried in mass graves on Hart Island, the potter’s field for the city. ...

Tanya Marsh


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