The lost souls of Hart Island

“To not know where your loved one is buried can be very painful”

Sally Raudon is a social anthropologist and PhD student at St John’s whose research into what happens to the dead of New York City – especially the poor – saw her doing fieldwork in the pandemic. She told Karen Clare about mass burials, rituals of grief, and more.

More than a million New Yorkers – from stillborn babies to the victims of AIDS, the homeless and Covid dead – are buried in trenches on Hart Island, a one-mile islet off the Bronx. For decades this island of trees, wildlife and derelict buildings has been uninhabited by the living but for the visits of gravedigging prisoners from the city’s Rikers Island jail, along with grieving families allowed to visit the burial places of their loved ones.

Hart Island has been in use as a public cemetery since 1869, a ‘potter’s field’, where the marginalised and unclaimed of New York have been interred without ceremony or memorials to mark their lives and their passing. The mass burials include stillborn babies given a ‘city burial’ in tiny stacked coffins without the knowledge of their grief-stricken families, sometimes for many years.

Sally Raudon
Sally Raudon. Credit: Nordin Ćatić. 

Sally said: “There’s no memorialisation at Hart Island at all, the people are not celebrated, and historically, it's been difficult to even find out information about your relative if you discover that they have been buried there. To not know where your loved one is buried can be very painful.”

In summer 2019, Sally set off on a 15-month fieldwork trip for her PhD, to study how citizenship survives death through exploring what happens to the dead in New York City, especially to those who can't afford a funeral. Hart Island was then under the jurisdiction of NYC Department of Correction, with visitors escorted by wardens on a prison boat. Sally had to book a visit 12 days ahead, show photo ID and surrender her communications equipment – anything that might take images or recordings. “It was more like a prison visit than a cemetery usually is,” said Sally. 

Initially, she thought she would be in New York to document the transfer of management from the Department of Correction to the city’s Parks department. But six months into her fieldwork, the pandemic hit. The city swiftly became an epicentre, and Hart Island fell under the media spotlight. “Most New Yorkers hadn't even heard of it until then,” said Sally. “When the international coverage started, and the island became very busy with Covid victims, a lot of people were really shocked.”

The last time New York had seen such scenes was during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. “Generally, when there’s a mass burial, it signals that something’s gone wrong. It means there’s been a natural disaster, or there has been some sort of social collapse or political violence; an overwhelming amount of death that needs to be dealt with very quickly. It says these people aren’t actually human, they are put beyond our community,” said Sally.

“There are plenty of mass burial sites around the world but Hart Island is unusual, because it’s orderly, and it’s ordinary. Yet people had a sense of this being fundamentally wrong and really distressing.”

Sally came back to the UK to continue her research from afar, but has since returned to New York to complete her fieldwork. During her research, she has spoken to everyone from local politicians and officials drafting policy with activists, to ex-prisoners who had dug burial trenches, morticians, funeral directors, historians, journalists, neighbouring islanders, and, of course, the bereaved. “I’m not a psychologist but I do know that when people discover their relatives are buried on Hart Island, they often feel as though they’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle,” she said.

“They often feel as though they’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle”

Hart Island archive burials photo
One of the first photographs of Hart Island’s common trench burials taken by the photojournalist, Jacob Riis in 1890. Credit: Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). Museum of the City of New York.

When you die in New York you become the property of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, and your family has to claim you. “So a family may find out that they have a loved one buried there. They could have simply lost contact or couldn’t get to them in time – there are plenty of stories of people being buried on Hart Island after two days, which wasn’t an adequate amount of time for the authorities to find the next of kin,” Sally explained. “Sometimes the relatives would like them back to hold their own funeral. The city is obliged to give them back and will disinter the remains for them. 

“These days Hart Island operates like a kind of underground filing cabinet of bodies. They can just go and find the person, get them out and give them to the family. That's not an uncommon process.”

The Office of Chief Medical Examiner now works hard to find a person’s next of kin and insists that most people are buried with consent. New York City is now ‘committed to ensuring that the public has access to the island’ and has services to help families find and visit the graves of their loved ones. With a lot of new public interest in Hart Island, there now needs to be political will to make the grave site what feels more like a cherished cemetery, peaceful natural burial ground or a city park; some New Yorkers think it should be a national monument.

Hart Island modern-day
Hart Island, where one million people are buried. Each white marker notes a massed grave of 150 remains. Credit: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock.

A Kiwi by birth, Sally did her first degree in English Literature in New Zealand but became interested in researching the issues surrounding citizenship, the state, the body and death after several bereavements in her twenties. A founding member of the New Zealand Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective and the New Zealand Society of Death Studies, she is a Churchill Fellow and was a Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland and a Teaching Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington before moving to Cambridge to do her PhD. She has travelled the world exploring how different cultures deal with death.

Sally said: “The dead work for the living and, when we put them to work in various ways, what we do with them, and the kind of social life someone has after death can be quite varied and creative. People want a physical place to be able to visit, and to locate their love and their memories, and to say this is a place set aside from everything else. This is a place where we go and mourn and remember and pray and think and leave grave gifts, or whatever it is that you want to do.”

Now it is for New Yorkers to decide what happens to Hart Island, where the poor and unclaimed are still being buried in trenches. “In Anglo-European society we expect our dead to have a grave, or a final resting place, to know their names and their dates. When that doesn't happen, for instance, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it becomes a kind of a moral rebuke that we got this wrong. So to bury people without recording their individual identity openly doesn't accord with our notions of dignity and respect,” added Sally.

“There is certainly a reckoning that's taking place in New York City about what’s acceptable, and what it means to treat people who are your fellow New Yorkers with that dignity and respect.”

*This article appears in the Lent Term 2022 issue of Eagle Eye, the St John's College magazine.

Published 14/3/2022

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