Island of the Dead
Hart Island, a sliver of land in Long Island Sound in New York, is eroding away. Nature reclaims its own, right? What’s heartbreaking–and eerie as hell–about the natural reclamation of this particular island into the sea?
The fact that along with the dirt and sand, the ocean is reclaiming the remains of the dead buried there. Perhaps even those of one of my kin.
Hart Island was purchased by New York City in 1868 with the intent to use the land as a “potter’s field” –a place to bury dead whose bodies go unclaimed at the morgue, or whose families cannot afford the price of burial in a traditional cemetery. Since then, the land has also housed a workhouse for wayward boys, a Civil War Prison, a tuberculosis hospital, a missile base, and an asylum. Now, amid crumbling ruins of these old structures lie the graves of countless dead, unmarked and stacked three deep.
Mass graves. Twice a week, a ferry crosses the sound stacked with pine boxes. Prison inmates from Riker’s Island are paid 50 cents an hour to inter these in bulldozer-gouged pits. It is estimated that over 1 million souls ended–and continue to end–their earthly journey here.
But now, some are leaving. In bits and pieces, a collarbone here, a femur there. Erosion is washing away the shores of Hart Island, unearthing some of the older graves.
What is the city, whose taxpayers’ dollars’ fund this mass disposal system for their indigent dead, doing about this horrifying state of the island? In this May 3, 2018 article, Melinda Hunt, advocate for the island, is quoted as saying, “They came to clean this up, but it isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.”
Visit The Hart Island Project to learn more. You’ll also learn the history of the island, see maps and aerial video footage, as well as video of what happens, twice a week, to this day. Chilling footage, to be certain.
What’s especially chilling about this particular slice of land, to me personally? I believe it’s where my mother’s mother–or grandmother, the family history is shrouded in secrets–was laid in or about 1934. My mother was twelve when the woman she knew as her mother died of a “rheumatic heart.” When I was a child, I remember her telling me that her mother’s body was laid out in a coffin in the family’s living room for three days before she went to burial.
The thought chilled a my eight-year-old mind to its core.
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
My mother stared at her hands in her lap. “No. She was my mother. I knew she would never hurt me, alive or dead.”
“Where is she buried, Mommy?” I asked.
My mother shook her head sadly and looked away. “We had no money. She was buried in a potter’s field.”
Hart Island, since its purchase by the city in 1868, has been the city’s potter’s field. My grandmother–or great grandmother–is buried there. I’m certain of it. And surely, a grave from the 1930s fits the definition of one of the “older graves.”
In 2012, after an exhaustive records search, I located the grave of my maternal grandfather. His draft card led me to his resting place in a military cemetery on Long Island. I visited and left a bouquet of pink roses. It felt good to find him, even though he never knew me. I experienced a sense of closure.
It appears I will never have the opportunity to achieve this with the woman my mother called “Mommy.”
I wonder if her remains are among those washing away into the sea. I wonder if, in at least a physical sense, she is finally finding freedom from her prison of poverty and shame after almost a hundred years . . .