72. Hart Island

Sunday August 2 2020

In early April of this year, a photojournalist sent a drone over Hart Island, located near Long Island, NY. Footage revealed large trenches with people in hazmat-style personal protection gear stacking dozens of coffins. Recall early spring was the time when the quarantines had just started and as a nation we were feeling rather edgy, so it was no real effort by the media to overplay this clandestine operation of newly dug mass graves. Was New York expecting so many COVID-related deaths that this was the only option to keep up with burials?

The term mass graves invokes a horrific vision, and let’s be honest here, there’s no good way to consider the depersonalization of it. I wasn’t aware of Hart Island before this news break and so I had no idea of the rich history belonging to the area. Only a mile long, and about a third of a mile at its widest point, Hart Island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1869, providing a forgotten population a place to rest.

And that was the intention of the new trenches in April. It was not to collect the overflow of New York’s COVID victims, but to bury the remains of those who were not claimed by those they left behind. The most marginalized of our society – the homeless, those who live in abject poverty, the mentally ill, the otherwise forsaken.

However, death rates in New York were rising at the beginning of April and burials at Hart Island increased from about 25 a week to 25 a day. I was surprised to learn that each interment includes a coffin and a unique number indexed in a database. The coffins are stacked in such a way that if the body is later claimed by family, it can be identified, found, then disinterred for the family to move to their resting place of choice.

This modern take on mass graves completely changes my perception. There is still a bit of dignity to be offered here for the mere sake of humanity. It reinforces my core belief that every life has value.

The history behind Hart Island is really interesting. Even today, there is no electricity provided to the island, which can only be accessed by ferry boat. The island was used during the Civil War for soldiers of color during their military training.

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hart_Island_(Bronx)

The first public use of Hart Island was training the 31st Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops beginning in 1864. A steamboat called John Romer shuttled recruits to the island from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan. A commander’s house and a recruits’ barracks were built; the barracks included a library and a concert room; it could house 2,000 to 3,000 recruits at a time, and over 50,000 men were ultimately trained there.

In November 1864, construction of a prisoner-of-war camp on Hart Island with room for 5,000 prisoners started. The camp was used for four months in 1865 during the American Civil War. The island housed 3,413 captured Confederate Army soldiers. Of these, 235 died in the camp and were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery. Following the Civil War, indigent veterans were buried on the island in soldier’s plots, which were separate from the potter’s field and at the same location. Some of these soldiers were moved to West Farms Soldiers Cemetery in 1916 and others were removed to Cypress Hills Cemetery in 1941.

This is worth the google time. Really. There’s so much more.

In the meantime, while Hart Island is not the repository for all New York COVID-related deaths, it’s worth the mention that all the others are being kept in many, many refrigerated trailers awaiting the coroners to process so the remains may be released to families.

We still have a problem here, people. 


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