Previous month:
August 2016
Next month:
October 2016

September 2016

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.

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

Dancing with the Idea of Death

DSC02754 (1)This past summer while complaining to my law professor and summer employer, Tanya Marsh, about my dismal excuse for weekend excitement she decided to invite me to a conference where she was scheduled to speak. A road trip—that sounded like a great idea. Immediately, I was ready to say yes. Then the topic of the session and conference surfaced “Who Owns the Dead” was Professor Marsh’s session (which by the way is very misleading —the dead are not property and therefore cannot be owned) at the bi-annual conference for the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA). In the wisdom of some great employment advice I once received—always say yes to new ideas, projects, and opportunities—I was off, death bound, to Atlanta.

During the time leading up to the conference I tried not to think too much about what I might find there. My experiences with death up to that point were not light. Even as a young person, I had encountered deaths of family friends, family members, and even high school classmates. The routine was always the same, pay your respects at the funeral home and then attend a funeral service before burial. It was never quite clear to me if when paying “your respects” it was to the deceased, or to their family, but in the moment there was no time to question the formalities. Instead, it was a time to follow your parents’ lead and to provide support, compassion, and empathy to those grieving—and that I did without even one question. Questions however, became the theme of my time at the FCA conference. I questioned the practices of the funeral industry, the practices of my family, the law, the economics, the convention, the science, the truth, and the very idea of death and what it means to me and to others.

The conference brought too light so many interesting death related problems that had never crossed my mind. When someone dies who do you call? Can you move and transport the body? Is it a health risk while in your house? Do you need to embalm the body? Do you need to have a viewing in a funeral home? Can you have the body cleaned and laid out your own home? How do you get a death certificate? Who can help you plan? And each of these questions beckoned nuisances like what is the law? What is the normal protocol? What is the expectation? What would the deceased want?

In hearing each answer more questions flowed and soon I realized that I was surrounded by those whose life was essentially death. These individuals included some funeral directors, some death care entrepreneurs, and some without a category at all made caring for the dead and those touched by death their very life’s work. Even more astonishing, was seeing the vitality with which they all advocated for the beauty and peace of death. With this realization, I started my own journey to join their mindset. Death is mysterious and unknown, but more than that, it is inevitable. We want in life the ability to freely choose how, when, where, and why. We live with purpose, passion, and conviction. We think about and learn about the world around us—but too often we fight the thought of dying. The thought of leaving all that we know and entering the unknown. But, the thoughts about death are what lead to questions about life and about living.

The conference ended with final dinner during which author Kate Sweeney read some excerpts from her new book, American Afterlife Encounters in the Customs of Mourning. The excerpts were some of Kate’s favorite stories about loved ones left behind and how they decided to deal with their loss. One particular story was about individuals that wanted their remains made into coral reefs, and how Kate joined these families as they set out to sea to experience their loved one’s final resting place. The scene she set was not one that reminded me of my experiences with mourning, nor was it a scene that reminded me clearly of anything I have yet experienced. But in that scene was a hope and a peace, an answer to the millions of unanswered questions about death. The truth is that where we are left when we die means very little in comparison to whom we leave behind.

The consumer of funeral services is not the deceased, it’s the living left behind. In that truth is the answer also to whom respects are paid—they are paid to the living, to those mourning the death. The FCA conference taught me that thinking about death is an essential part of life and that there are joyful, dedicated, and compassionate people that live in order to make death just a little more bearable. What we owe them, to ourselves, and to those we will leave behind is more than a thought about death when it’s on our doorstep. We owe each of them a dance—a dance with the idea of death. The idea of our own death, what it means to us and more importantly what it means to our world, especially our own little corner of the world that we leave behind.

Brandy Nickoloff

Powerpoints from NYSAC: Invention of American Cemetery Law & Emerging Developments in Death Care Law

I had a great time at the 88th Annual Fall Conference of the New York State Association of Cemeteries.  I was privileged to speak on two topics -- "The Invention of American Cemetery Law" and "Emerging Developments in Death Care Law."  If you're interested, the powerpoint presentations that I used are posted below.

Download 9-19-2016 Invention of American Cemetery Law

Download 9-19-2016 Emerging Developments in Death Care Law

Tanya Marsh

What Treatment of a Corpse will "Outrage Ordinary Family Sensibilities"?

On October 1, 2014, Goldia Massey of Cynthiana, Kentucky was reported missing by her son.  She was later determined to have died “on or about” September 21, 2014.  Upon her death, her body was sawed to pieces and dumped into the Kentucky River.  In October 2014, Massey’s arm was found along the river in Henry County and her torso was found that December along the river in Jessamine County.

In August 2016, the jury took less than three hours to find Paris Charles, a 60 year old handyman and former boyfriend of Massey, guilty of her murder and abuse of her corpse.  While sentencing will take place later this week, the jury recommended a 35-year sentence for murder and a $500 fine for abuse of a corpse.

Kentucky Statute §525.120 dictates that a person commits the crime of abuse of corpse when “he intentionally treats a corpse in a way that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  It is a Class A misdemeanor unless the abuse involves sexual intercourse or “deliberate failure to prepare, bury, or cremate a corpse” after entering into a contract to do so.  In these cases, the abuse will be categorized as a Class D felony.

The case of Golida Massey clearly does not fall into the felony provision of the statute; there is no evidence of sexual activity with her corpse and the abuse did not happen as a result of a breach of contract.  Charles was convicted under the misdemeanor provision of the statute, which prohibits any treatment “that would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.”  What is an ordinary family sensibility?

While most will likely agree that sawing a corpse to pieces would “outrage ordinary family sensibilities,” this provision is extremely ambiguous.  America is composed of many religions and types of families.  Is there really an “ordinary family” that can be used to judge inappropriate treatment of human remains?

Had Massey's body been sawed up in another state, the criminal statute might have more definitively prohibited the behavior.  For example, some states prohibit “mutilation” of a corpse.  Illinois goes further and specifically defines the crime of dismembering a corpse as when an individual “knowingly dismembers, severs, separates, dissects, or mutilates any body part of a deceased’s body.”

Kentucky, however, is among many states that define abuse of a corpse only in terms of what would offend an ordinary family’s sensibilities.  While most jurors will likely consider sawing up your girlfriend’s body to offend ordinary sensibilities, what will happen when a defendant commits a slightly more subtle injustice to his girlfriend’s corpse?  Will ambiguous state statutes let him slip away unpunished?  What will happen when grieving loved ones perform a unique ritual as part of a religious tradition?  Will ambiguous state statutes criminalize their grief?  What really is an "ordinary family"?

Lauren Stovall

Cemetery Tourist: A Visit to Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, Virginia

DSC02787I drove from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Hershey, Pennsylvania today, en route to the 88th Annual Fall Conference of the New York State Association of Cemeteries.  I stopped in Lexington, Virginia, the home of Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University, to visit the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.  I visited Lexington last fall but didn't think to stop by the cemetery.  I made up for that today.

The Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery was founded as the churchyard of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, which established a congregation in 1789.  According to the Church's website,

General Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson was a member of this church from the year of his arrival in 1851 as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute until his death in 1863. Until his departure from Lexington in April of 1861, Jackson taught a Sunday School Class that was well-attended by the town's African-American population. Jackson's next return to Lexington was for burial in the Presbyterian Cemetery on 15 May 1863.

The Cemetery is a beautiful, well-maintained example of a Southern cemetery.  There are a wide variety of tombstone styles, as well as mausoleums. 


There are a number of lovely family lots, some surrounded by iron fencing and others by stone coping.  Some have consistent tombstone styles and others are quite individualistic. 



There are also a significant number of graves of Confederate soldiers, many of which are marked by "C.S.A." symbols.


And at the center of the Cemetery is the grave of Stonewall Jackson.


Tomorrow I'll visit Gettysburg National Cemetery.  Jackson didn't make it to the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863—he was shot and killed at the Battle of Chancellorville a few months before.  Approximately 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded at Gettysburg, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and ending General Robert E. Lee's final attempt to invade the North.  But Lee did make it back to Lexington, Virginia after the War, serving as president of Washington and Lee University from 1865 until his death in 1870.  General Lee is also buried in Lexington, in the crypt beneath Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee.


Tanya Marsh