The woman told me she’d had nightmares about the island for months. She was one of the visitors gathering at a ferry slip on City Island, a neighborhood lying on the northeastern bulge of the Bronx at the confluence of the Long Island Sound and the East River. Along with her partner, a silent heavyset man who wore black sweatclothes and shifted his weight, she had driven an hour and fifteen minutes from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border that morning to visit the mass grave where her father is buried. She spoke to me as we waited for the ferry to take us across a narrow channel to Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, where more than a million of New York City’s dead—bodies of the impoverished, the unidentified and the unclaimed—have been buried since 1869.
As the woman and I stood by the ferry slip on a spring day in 2017, she spoke about her visit: how her biological father, a World War II veteran, never should have been buried on Hart Island, and how she wanted to have him reinterred in a military cemetery. She was having trouble lining up all the necessary papers for his reburial. It would be her first visit to the island since finding out he had been buried there, and she spoke with an antic, tortured agitation. When another visitor mentioned there had once been an asylum on the island, she visibly shuddered. We were standing next to a tall barbed wire fence, marked as property of the New York City Department of Corrections. The burials on Hart Island are carried out by inmates serving out the end of terms for misdemeanors at Rikers, New York City’s notorious, scandal-plagued prison-island. During the week, guards supervise the heavy labor of inmates as rectangular pine coffins are piled in enormous trenches.
For decades, Hart Island was exceedingly difficult to visit—for a 2016 investigation, the New York Times suspended drone cameras above the island to take a look at the graves. A 2015 legal settlement mandates accommodation for visiting family, which has begun to put pressure on the old, tacit and almost fabular covenant that the city will bury the unclaimed dead but only at the price of making them near-unreachable. Since the island began hosting monthly graveside visits the demand has been enormous: the trips command long waiting lists that fill up months in advance. But the whole arrangement still has an ad hoc, provisional air: there are no restrooms for visitors, who must surrender their phones and remain in the company of corrections personnel the entire time. (In May 2018, Ydanis Rodriguez, a city council member representing Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, reintroduced a bill which would transfer the island from the jurisdiction of Corrections to the Parks Department and establish regular ferry service there, part of a vision to make it accessible to the wider public.)
I began reading about the island’s history when researching a piece of fiction, but this was the first time I would see it for myself. Since visits to the grounds are reserved for family members of the dead, I plumbed my memory for any connections I might have. For people who come from immigrant backgrounds in New York City (which is to say most New Yorkers), the odds are high that they have some family member buried on Hart Island. I asked my dad, whose parents were both first-generation Americans and Brooklynites, if he knew of anyone who might have ended up on Hart Island. He thought about it. “Well, you could try my uncle Walter, an alcoholic who no one in the family has heard from since the 1970s,” he finally said. As part of the push to make the island more accessible, a searchable database of the dead buried since 1977 has been compiled. So I typed in my great-uncle’s name and, with a keystroke, his record came up: Walter Norton had died at age 75 at Metropolitan Hospital Center in East Harlem in 1991. He had been buried in plot 221 on Hart Island.
As the ferry chugged across the water, the island’s bracken and the withered brick of abandoned twentieth-century buildings came into view. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find that the woman from the ferry slip had sidled up beside me. She didn’t so much stand as cower, as though her body had lost its shape and become pliable, warped by the pressure of worry and grief. In a distraught voice she asked me if it had been hard for me to find my uncle. I muttered something about the database. She said she had tried the same way but her father hadn’t been on the list. After she’d begun looking, it had taken her months to find out where he’d been buried. As the ferry pulled alongside the island, she melted away without further comment, returning to stand by her partner’s side.
The first public burial on Hart Island was carried out one hundred and fifty years ago, on April 20, 1869. Louisa Van Slyke is thought to have been an orphan and an immigrant. The only facts about her that survive are that she was born at sea and that she was 24 years old when she died at Manhattan’s Charity Hospital. She was not alone for long. During the subsequent decades, more than a million of New York City’s dead, most with threadbare accounts like her own, have joined her. Hart Island is an active potter’s field: anywhere from a thousand to fifteen hundred corpses are buried there every year, each in identical rectangular pine coffins. In its early years, many of the dead appear to have been immigrants, and the dead at Hart Island have always come disproportionately from impoverished neighborhoods and from publicly funded hospitals and nursing homes. Burial methods haven’t changed much since the nineteenth century: photographs from the 1890s, like those from the 1990s, show row after row of plain wooden crates, stacked three deep in seventy-foot-long trenches.
As recently as the early 1990s, small on-site jails for inmate burial workers were housed on Hart Island itself. Typically, the inmates selected for burial duty at Rikers are serving out the end of terms for misdemeanors. For a 1998 book of photographs, artist and activist Melinda Hunt gathered testimony from burial crews, one of the last times this kind of access was granted. She found them to be mostly “young inmates convicted of misdemeanors like turnstile jumping and graffiti, that kind of thing … young men who didn’t have the resources to pay $1,000 bail to avoid going to prison.” Some of the inmates she spoke to found their work unsettling or angering: “It’s bad enough that the city is robbing the poor when they are alive but to bury them in such a disrespectful manner is messed up,” an inmate named Douglas wrote. Another burial worker, Albert, was more reverent about the place: “I sometimes wish I was here at night when everything is still just to see what it’s like … To me, this island is like a huge monument surrounded by water.”
The words are resonant, for as it exists Hart Island is in some ways a monument inverted, the lost histories and lives it houses not displayed but hidden like the bracken and grasses that have reclaimed some of its older grave plots. If one could watch the island’s history unfold from an altitude of decades rather than days, the view would reveal a long line of expired projects, people and aims. For much of its history, less than a third of the island was devoted to the potter’s field. During the Civil War, it hosted a training ground for African-American regiments, an embarkation dock for military ships and a prison camp for captured Confederates. During subsequent years, Hart Island housed prisons and jails of various sizes, a reformatory for young offenders, a homeless shelter and substance abuse treatment programs. Accounts of the old open-air reformatory complex underscore the difference in penal regimes before the era of mass incarceration, when prison was primarily a place to reform white men. At various points in the past, inmates at Hart Island had a baseball team, the Hart Island Wildcats, and a prison orchestra. “Hart Island is completely self-sustaining,” a 1969 local history boasts, listing its resources: a clinic, a church, a butcher shop, a laundry and a commissary. Inmates raised chickens and kept a garden. In the Forties, the wife of the warden played the organ at church services and organized singing groups among inmates.
In one of the densest urban agglomerations on earth, Hart Island feels distinctly remote, and this is no accident. Hart Island is part of a lattice of cradle-to-grave public institutions, pushed to the city’s lesser islands and shorelines during Manhattan’s tremendous growth during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, to this day, invisible in the bustling surface city—hidden like the picture in Dorian Gray’s attic. I sometimes think of Hart Island as part of an archipelago of sadness that stretches down the East River, from Hart Island to Rikers near LaGuardia Airport, to the floating jail in Hunt’s Point off the eastern shore of the Bronx, and to Creedmoor, the enormous, half-abandoned, but still active insane asylum on the shore of Queens. North Brother Island, a tiny bit of rock near Rikers, once housed hospitals where tubercular and typhoid patients were quarantined. Before it was redeveloped for housing in the Seventies, Roosevelt Island was called Welfare Island for the number of public institutions—hospitals and asylums and a prison—that it contained. Welfare Island’s notoriety as a place where the poor received medical treatment and died is attested to by the frequency of allusions to it in our literature. Langston Hughes’s 1942 collection Shakespeare in Harlem features the poem “Cabaret Girl Dies on Welfare Island”:
I hate to die this way with the quiet
Over everything like a shroud.
I’d rather die where the band’s a-playin’
Noisy and loud.
Rather die the way I lived –
Drunk and rowdy and gay!
God! Why did you ever curse me
Makin’ me die this way?
In 1953 Julia de Burgos, the Puerto Rican poet, spent months at the hospital on Welfare Island, ill with pneumonia and the effects of alcoholism. The poem “Adios en Welfare Island” plumbs the depths of her confinement for strength:
It has to be from here
forgotten but unshaken
among comrades of silence
deep into Welfare Island
my farewell to the world.
She died that year and was buried on Hart Island. In de Burgos’s case, her friends noticed she was missing, and when, after weeks of searching, they realized she had been buried on the island, great effort was poured into amending the anonymity of her death. Her body was exhumed, and she was given an enormous send-off at a funeral home in the Bronx before being sent back to Puerto Rico for reburial in the country she had vowed she would never return to when she left it at age 25.
New York City’s reputation has long been made as a place where one can dive into the crowd, strive alone and live a life immune from the influence or constraints of one’s immediate family—whether that family is in another state or country, or mere miles away, as in the case of my great-uncle. The dark side of this is reflected in the countless burials at Hart Island of people whose relatives were not found in time or notified, who died alone because they stopped keeping in touch, became reclusive, or simply because they fell into poverty and its attendant hardships and social shame. The Wikipedia page for Hart Island lists assorted prominent New Yorkers whose remains ended up on the island, names that were prominent once but that aren’t likely to garner widespread recognition today: the screenwriter Leo Birinski, the child actor Bobby Driscoll, the novelist Dawn Powell.
In the case of Julia de Burgos, her initial death at a public hospital and burial in Hart Island is part of the legend of her later years. Her translator, East Harlem activist and poet Jack Agüeros, has written about a grisly rumor that followed her even after the feted public funeral: “One of the legends that I first heard from my father, and later was repeated by others, was that Julia de Burgos was so tall that they had to amputate her legs in order to fit her into the standard City coffin,” Agüeros wrote. “That horrible anecdote has haunted me ever since, and when I saw a group photo where Julia is the tallest person, I winced.”
What matters isn’t whether Julia de Burgos was actually buried with her feet intact, but the figurative truth the story suggests: that the beauty and talent de Burgos had in life were not enough to protect her in death; that even though reburied with great fanfare, she could not emerge unscathed from that anonymous pauper’s grave.
Disembarking from the ferry slip, we passed white plaster statues of cherubs and the Virgin Mary. When I asked, the guard leading the visit told me these were paid for and installed by the ferry operators who wait all day at the slip while inmates unload the coffins from morgue trucks. We were divided into two groups to ride in a van and a pickup truck; at least six uniformed corrections workers accompanied the trip, awkwardly solicitous and toting a regulation handgun on their hips. My great-uncle’s grave happened to be the last stop on the route, and so I got a good view of the island as the driver looped around, dropping people off at the plots where officers had stuck conical containers of fake flowers in the ground to make them easier to find.
There is an astringent beauty to the quiet windswept spaces where the graves are; in burial areas by the hill, the view opens out on the shipping lanes of the Long Island Sound. Sparse white concrete blocks mark the place of the mass graves. The older markers are often broken, the earth otherwise covered by a light coating of weeds. As with the stucco angels by the dock, the sense of the dead’s isolation has inspired other memorials over the decades: an obelisk to the Civil War dead (who have since been reinterred at a national cemetery in Brooklyn); a white ten-foot cross made of wood and stones on a hill overlooking the mass graves built in the Eighties; and a conventional tombstone by the road which reads “He Calleth His Own By Name.” The car looped back to the area near the ferry, which is marked by a cluster of ruins: a brick Catholic church and Art Deco-style administration building have pocked windows and caved-in roofs. The last tenant, the substance-abuse treatment center Phoenix House, moved in 1976; a faded black and white outline of a phoenix is still visible on the weathered brick. Some of the newest burial plots on Hart Island lie alongside it, where old buildings have been demolished to make way for more mass graves. The recently upturned earth is pale brown, scarred by the tire prints of trucks.
My great-uncle’s grave was just south of this, in a storied part of the island. In the Twenties, a Barbadian property developer named Solomon Riley bought a four-acre tract at the southern tip of the island, which he planned to make an amusement park for New York’s African-American community, who were banned from the whites-only amusement parks at Rye and Dobbs Ferry. In the words of a New York Times explainer, Riley built “a dance hall, eight boardinghouses, and a two-hundred-foot boardwalk, and converted an old ice boat into a bathing pavilion” for the resort, dubbed “the Negro Coney Island” by the white press. He was about to buy a fleet of sixty motorboats to ferry visitors to the island for its opening on July 4, 1925 when the city became concerned about escape attempts among the prisoners on Hart Island. On the verge of becoming the era’s only summer resort for New York’s black community, the city condemned the land and bought it back from Riley for four times what he had paid. (The same part of the island was later used to bury victims of the AIDS epidemic, their remains buried fourteen feet deep because of fears about the disease.)
When the pickup pulled over, I trudged to the spot where a green cone of plastic flowers marked my great-uncle’s burial place. The guard who’d driven me stayed back, fidgeting and trying to keep a respectful distance. The plot was next to the southeastern shore of the island, and the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges were visible in the distance. I knelt in the grass atop the grave trench and meditated. I had a few words with Walter Norton and the dead around him. I had expected to find the excursion gloomy, but instead I was struck by the beauty and quiet of the place. Melinda Hunt, who founded the Hart Island Project to bring public recognition to the island, speaks of Hart Island as hallowed ground for containing so many generations of New York’s dead, and, kneeling there, I knew what she meant. I stayed as long as I could.
When we drove back to pick up the others, the blonde woman from the slip was one of the first to get on. She asked how I’d found the visit. “Very beautiful,” I said. I told her the grave had a view of the Throgs Neck and the Whitestone Bridge. Her father’s burial site had been on the side looking out over ships passing on the Long Island Sound, and she said she’d also found the place beautiful and peaceful, and had been impressed by how cordial and solicitous the corrections staff had been. In fact, she told me, she was reconsidering reburying her father. “You know, my father always loved New York City,” she said. It was appropriate that he should be buried here.
Our experiences made me think about how Hart Island’s invisibility and inaccessibility is in great part responsible for the fear that the place elicits. Establishing better access for families and the public might change how we think not only of Hart Island, but about death itself. Before my trip to the island, I had walked around a conventional cemetery in residential City Island, the nautical Bronx neighborhood the ferry departs from. Watching families mill around and decorate graves, I felt keenly the injustice of Hart Island’s inaccessibility and anonymity. After my trip to the island, when I revisited that cemetery, the big gray marble gravestones suddenly seemed appallingly ostentatious—self-serving and absurd—compared to the silent democracy of the dead at Hart Island.
If you think about it, there is a kind of poetic justice to the place: that New Yorkers, who live in such close proximity to one another in life, should also do so in death. Hart Island was not the first potter’s field in New York City. Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Union Square and Washington Square all served at one time as potter’s fields, and this history is the reason their land was preserved from development. Around twenty thousand bodies still lie beneath Washington Square Park’s iconic arch, fountain and benches. In tightly packed Manhattan, the dead are at your feet.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen has spoken about an “ethics of the city”—an ethics that “gets its hands dirty” in dealing with the inequality and indifference that weave through contemporary urban life. The question of how to deal with the dead that an enormous city like New York casts up seems to lie at the heart of this. New York is one of the few major American cities that still buries its unclaimed and impoverished dead in a potter’s field; most others cremate them. Hart Island could be viewed as a failure of urban ethics—a place where the city’s dead are hidden from view and buried en masse—or it could point to new ways to observe and even revere the deaths of the strangers around us.
How to mourn the prematurely dead, the marginalized dead, those who die outside traditional structures, are questions that we must sooner or later face collectively. In his 1938 poem “Kids Who Die,” Langston Hughes tallies the young activists who will die organizing sharecroppers in Mississippi and workers on the streets of Chicago and the orange groves of California. When he addresses these assorted “kids”—who in the language of the poem die always in present or future tense—Hughes recognizes that their bodies may “be lost in a swamp / Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field.” He locates the charge of continuing their work of liberation and of love not just in improving conditions for the living, but in appreciating and retrieving the lost dead, assuring them:
the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a monument of love
The verse may not be as stirring as Hughes’s blues poems like “Cabaret Girl Dies on Welfare Island.” The sweet-hearted, almost sentimental, vision of the poem is wrought out of an immense sorrow that sometimes threatens to crush its stubborn hope. But the poem’s vision has stayed with me. I take Hughes’s words to mean not only that love is the only true monument we can raise against death, but that we must learn to love on a monumental scale, beyond our own personal, parochial attachments. A monument of love; one built not in stone, but in feeling.
Photo credit: Francisco Daum (CC / BY Flickr); Jacob A. Riis, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York