Hart Island in Long Island Sound is New York City’s forbidden island, forbidden to all except paupers, the friendless, and the forgotten, and to them only if corpses. It is the city’s potter’s field, where the unclaimed and unidentified bodies of the dead are buried, their graves dug by inmates from Riker’s Island. And why forbidden? Primarily because the island also houses the crumbling remains of various long-abandoned facilities, sites fascinating to contemplate from a distance but dangerous to enter. Here is the section of my post #49 from long ago that described the island:
And what becomes of humans -- the unclaimed bodies that turn up in every big city -- one may also ask. The answer in New York is that, since 1869, they are taken to Hart Island, a quiet, grassy island only about a mile long and a quarter mile wide in Long Island Sound near City Island in the Bronx. This now uninhabited island, at various times the site of a lunatic asylum, a sanatorium, a boys' workhouse, and a drug facility, is the city's potter's field, the final resting place of some 800,000 anonymous, indigent, and forgotten persons who are buried in closely packed plain pine coffins in common graves, three coffins deep for adults, and five for babies. Some 1500 bodies arrive yearly, about half of them stillbirths and infants who are interred in small pine coffins. "Baby Morales, age 5 minutes," says the paperwork on one; "Unknown male, white, found floating on the Hudson at 254th Street," says another. Burials are done quickly and routinely without funeral rites, unless there is a spontaneous prayer from a gravedigger.
Note: I have often wondered where the phrase "potter's field" comes from. It is Biblical, saying what the chief priests did with Judas's thirty pieces of silver when, repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, he flung them down on the floor of the temple and went and hanged himself: "And they took counsel, and bought the potter's field, to bury strangers in" (Matthew 27:7). A field used for extracting potter’s clay was useless for agriculture and so was available for burials.
And who are the gravediggers of Hart Island? Inmates from Riker's Island who arrive by boat handcuffed, but then climb down into the trenches to work unmanacled, most of them glad to be away from prison and out in the open air, working in the flat, calm solitude of the island. They are paid all of fifty cents an hour, as is typical of our prison/industrial complex. But they are not insensitive. "Respect, guys, respect!" they caution one another, as they lower the coffins into the graves and then cover them with dirt.
Hart Island is not open to the general public, most of whom have probably never even heard of it, and trespassers face a stiff fine. But family members able to prove their relatives are buried there can arrange visits. This is no easy task, since one has to navigate numerous city agencies to obtain the necessary information. The coffins have no individual markings, but each grave corresponds to an entry in a ledger. If successful, the family members can then arrange to have the remains disinterred and removed for burial elsewhere. But most of the remains are unclaimed.
What is it like on the island? The few who are allowed to visit have different impressions. One visitor, seeing the crumbling vestiges of earlier installations, called it a dilapidated ghost town; another found it surprisingly peaceful, surrounded on sunny days by an expanse of scintillating water, and serenaded by the distant clanging buoys of Long Island Sound. One hopes, for this last resting place of the unknown and forgotten, that the latter impression is more accurate. But those crumbling vestiges have a haunting beauty that photography reveals: the beauty of abandonment and desolation. I shall never be able to visit this forbidden island, but everything about it breathes mystery.
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But today Hart Island has been touched by scandal. One would like to think that those generous donors, often affluent, who leave their remains to science would have their wishes respected, and that those remains would advance the progress of science and benefit humanity at large. But such is not always the case, as revealed by a recent New York Times exposé of laws favoring the enrichment of nursing homes and court-appointed guardians of intestate estates, who found it profitable to let bodies entrusted to their care be buried on the island, sometimes even though a minimal effort by the authorities could have found the next of kin. Consider these examples:
· An 88-year-old woman who worked as a housekeeper for the same family for 50 years, but who outlived that family and was shipped off to Hart Island.
· The remains of a 102-year-old feminist pioneer whose family donated her body to science, expecting her to then be cremated, ended up on the island.
· A 96-year-old author of an influential book on costume design for opera willed his body to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons who, not needing it, passed it on to the New York University School of Medicine, which in time sent it to Hart Island instead of cremating it.
· A shrewd 91-year-old businesswoman who had left her estate of more than $1.3 million to charity and given her body to NYU with the expressed wish that she finally be cremated, likewise ended up on the island.
And so on and so on. The scandal seems to have resulted less from intention and malice than from negligence and bureaucratic ineptitude, and has apparently been resolved with appropriate apologies. But in willing one’s body to science with hopes for ultimate cremation, one had better receive iron-clad assurances that your noble wishes will be carried out. Otherwise, you may end up with the friendless and forgotten in a cheap pine coffin with a number on it in a grave on Hart Island, with only the respectful words of an inmate by way of a farewell. So it goes in the City That Never Sleeps.
Source note: For information on the recent Hart Island scandal, I am indebted to articles by Francis X. Clines and Nina Bernstein in the New York Times of May 24 and May 28, 2016, respectively.
The book: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.) As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: ??? It’s wide open.
© 2016 Clifford Browder