Starting in the 1870s, and every year for the past fifteen years, journalists have told and retold the “hidden history” of New York City’s Hart Island, a hundred-acre city cemetery off the coast of the Bronx. Some fields are rolling and green with little white plot markers. Others are fresh brown earth, where individual coffins are buried in communal graves. Where there are not bodies, there are dry stone walls, woodlands, wetlands, and nineteenth-century brick ruins ringed by salt marshes and rubble. For over 150 years, the cemetery has been run as an extension of the prison system, difficult to visit, and this fact tends to capture the imagination.
Stories about it have often circled the same details: An island prison for the dead!Boxes of dismembered limbs and Civil War soldiers and bones all clacking together, forgotten in the dirt on a mostly barren piece of land shaped like the top of what else but a tibia bone, ever shrouded in fog, capitula and patellae protruding from its eroding edges. When I first learned about it, young and wide-eyed, I thought of John Donne. Dylan Thomas. Charon and the River Styx. I couldn’t imagine anything so worthy of a headline.
This spring, while COVID-19 surged through New York City, many others felt the same way. As Americans watched the nation’s death toll approach one hundred thousand, sobering drone footage circulated of Rikers Island prisoners in white and orange jumpsuits stacking caskets on Hart Island, its hidden history rediscovered yet again, but this time it struck a chord that reverberated far beyond the five boroughs. More than one hundred news outlets, from New York and Los Angeles to Vancouver, London, New Delhi, and Adelaide, linked these “mass grave” burials to coronavirus deaths, invoking the island’s dark past as a place for New York’s poor and unclaimed. One essayist called the people buried there “nobodies.”
Even with all that coverage, there was scarce mention of the island’s significance to tens of thousands of living New York City families. It is, after all, the city cemetery. In recent years, between one thousand and twelve hundred New Yorkers have been interred there annually. About 1 percent of them are John and Jane Does, at least until they are not. Two out of five are unclaimed by next of kin, at least until they are not. Anyone who has mourned the death of someone at some point might find it tough to guess how many, if any, are forgotten.
As scholar James J. Farrell wrote, “Death is a cultural event,” and societies reveal themselves in their treatment of it. When I first read about this place, I wondered: What does an island for the marginalized dead say about the city of New York? In 2020, I wonder what calling thousands of New Yorkers “forgotten,” over and over again, says about us.