As New York City hires laborers to bury the dead on Hart Island, the media and social media has unleashed a fury of drone footage and photos of the effort. Along with with the ever-seeing-eyes and horrific images, comes blame that is put on government officials, and speculation that these are just mass graves and perhaps improper burials.
The truth is, there are very different stories about what this burial ground actually is. The stories of Jane and John Doe.
Reuters reported on the burials:
Drone Footage of Burials:
A Fury Of Anger
A fury of hate and anger, along with associated hashtags trended on Twitter including #TrumpBurialPits that squarely place the blame on the shoulders of President Donald Trump and his administrations slow response to and lack of preparedness for the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic.
One Tweeters Perspective
Despite the hate and blame, one Tweet thread from Julia Kite-Laidlaw caught my attention so I requested her permission to share this information with you. Please note that she does not work in any aspect of city burial, and wrote this from a personal perspective.
Hart Island, off the east side of the Bronx, has been the city’s potter’s field for decades. It has also served as a Civil War prison camp, a Cold War missile storage site, a drug rehab facility, and lots of other things throughout NYC history.
It is not a park. It is not open to the public. You can’t get there unless you can prove a relationship to someone buried there, and then you are allowed onto a ferry. This is not “dig a trench in Central Park and throw bodies in it.”
Why are people buried there? Many reasons. Most are either destitute, unidentified, and/or have had no family member or friend claim them from the morgue. That’s not true in every case. Some next of kin have not known what “city burial” meant or simply couldn’t afford more.
The timeline for going to Hart Island used to be 30 days unclaimed. Because of the skyrocketing numbers of deaths here, it has been shortened to 14. It doesn’t mean the instant your loved one dies, they are taken to the trenches. Not at all.
Bodies are treated respectfully. The caskets are labeled so that if someone steps forward in the future to claim a body, the person can be disinterred and moved to a cemetery elsewhere.
Obviously nobody under any circumstance wants a family member buried in a potter’s field. But even before coronavirus, such a place has been necessary for a large city where every day, people die unidentified and alone. That is urban life.
The Office of the City Medical Examiner is full of experts on this difficult subject. I have full trust in them to be respectful and make the wise decisions. When I found my uncle dead and I was the only one around to handle it, they treated me with the utmost professionalism.
What they are doing on Hart Island is not new, it is not shocking. It is a shift in the timeline of what has been done for ages on a designated burial site, from 30 to 14 days, because we’re in a state of emergency. That’s all. This is not the apocalypse.
Melinda Hunt started the Hart Island Project to help people identify their loved ones there and to humanize the anonymous dead. The satellite photo on her website shows this is not some hellhole. It’s a quiet place for a very specific, necessary function. hartisland.net
People understandably don’t think about what has to be done with unclaimed bodies unless it’s their job. So, now you know. New York City has an island for burials. More people are dying so there are more and faster burials. That is really the entire story – sorry, tabloids.
What I personally hope people take away from these strange times:
Experienced, smart people are having to make impossible decisions that by definition will not please everybody. They take into account factors you wouldn’t know exist – because why would you? They’re specialists.
Whatever alternative you think is better – I guarantee you an expert has thought of it, considered it, and could tell you why it’s not the best choice if only they weren’t busy getting things done.
There is no joy, and certainly no sadism, in tough decisions at a time like this.
Jane & John Doe
As sad as people dying alone in New York and not being able to notify next of kin or have a ‘proper’ burial is….. dying alone is the reality of this pandemic. Friends and family are not allowed to visit those that are dying in the hospital due to the highly virulent and lethal nature of SARS CoV2.
For this reason, we all must do our part and Stay At Home. Please take this pandemic seriously. Flu death are 20 per million of population in the U.S. each year. Even with the strict social distancing measures we have put in place, the death rate for COVID-19 currently (04/10/20) is 54 per million in the U.S. and 400 per million in New York ~ AND RISING.
We don’t want to carry and transmit this virus to the ones we love.
We don’t want them to die alone.
If you have lost someone that you love, my heart goes out to you. Grief loss is extremely difficult and it can take a lot of time to heal. Please know that you are not alone and you can always reach out to me directly if you are hurting. ctiexec at gmail
A little over a year ago, a friend of mine lost her son to suicide. A very helpful community of people offered some tips on bouncing back after loss. I wrote about that here and you may find it helpful:
My heart goes out to our Health Care Heroes on the front lines of this tragedy that are helping our dying loved ones get through this. THANK YOU! I have started a fundraiser to help with meals and snacks. Please consider donating:
About Hart Island
If you are curious about Hart Island, I would encourage you to visit their website. From their website:
“New York’s City Cemetery on Hart Island occupies 131 acres in the Long Island Sound on the eastern edge of the Bronx. Since 1869, prison labor has been used to bury unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves of 150 adults or 1000 infants.” See: https://www.hartisland.net/about