Politics

If You Die Poor or Alone in New York City, You’ll Be Buried by Prisoners in a Mass Grave

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 (Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York)
A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890 (Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York)

 

(The Nation) – We all die alone. But some of us die even more alone than others.

In New York City, if you are unfortunate enough to come to the end of your days without family or friends, or if those who love you don’t have the means to pay for burial, you end up isolated and anonymous for eternity, stranded on a little-known island off the shores of the Bronx, almost entirely out of reach of anyone who might care that you are gone.

New York’s process for dealing with “indigent burials” has a distinctly Victorian flavor to it. Since the late nineteenth century, the city has interred its poor and anonymous dead on Hart Island, a 130-acre scrap of land in Long Island Sound. The final resting place for as many as one million souls—victims of yellow fever, HIV and a succession of other plagues, along with mental illness and poverty—it is the city’s Id, or maybe its Hades, a forlorn place accessible only by ferry.

And the burial process itself? This is done by convicts who are imprisoned on nearby Rikers Island. Paid at a rate of 50 cents an hour, they handle about 1,500 corpses each year, burying them in wooden coffins in unmarked mass graves. These burials usually happen on a weekly basis, far from the eyes of the public, in a grim and punitive setting. Aside from the prisoners and the ferryman, few people are allowed to visit the island.

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