We don't like to think of things concerning death very often, especially the nasty technicalities of disposing of human remains. A few years ago I read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (10/10 should read) which offers a good deal of insight on this morbid topic. I was reading it on a flight to New York City; as we were landing, a fellow passenger pointed out the gargantuan Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, once considered the largest man-made structure on Earth. It was aerial sightseeing at its finest. It struck me just how much garbage a city the size of NYC must produce.

And then I thought back to Stiff and wondered, with its enormous and highly transient population, how many dead bodies New York generates. Processing the dead probably happens there much as it does anywhere else, with the vast majority ending up in cemeteries, crematoria, and so on. But certainly big cities must have to deal with an above-average number of unclaimed and unidentified bodies as well. So I did a tiny amount of research and learned about Hart Island, which is apparently the largest publicly-funded cemetery in the world. Hart Island is where all of the unclaimed (or indigent) dead in New York City end up for more than a century.

It's not in the tourist guides.

It is estimated that Hart Island contains well over 1 million bodies, having been used to inter bodies from the public hospitals and morgues since 1869, when it was sold by the Army (who were also using it as a cemetery) to the City. Until 1913 remains were buried in mass graves. Today they are buried (by Riker's Island inmates, formerly conscripted but who are now paid prison wage for the labor) in rows of 25 in thin pine boxes. These "trenches" are re-used after forty to fifty years, by which time the previous boxes (and occupants) have decomposed almost completely. That's 140-plus years of New York City's dead, literally buried atop one another. If you've ever wondered what hospitals do with amputated limbs, well…in New York they end up on Hart Island. In special small boxes marked LIMBS. I'm not suggesting that this is inappropriate; personally I don't think it matters what is done with the remains of the dead. I'm simply amazed by the quantity of people who have ended up in this one modestly sized cemetery – and the literal layers of social and human history found on that island.

Hart Island is hard to visit. Ceremonies are not conducted with burials, nor are individual markers placed. If you discovered that a friend or relative is buried there, there are only one or two opportunities per year for the public to go to Hart Island to see the burial site. Is it not intriguing to think that right in the middle of one of the world's biggest cities is an inaccessible island laden with corpses?

Oh, Hart Island has had other tenants in the past besides the impoverished dead, and the list reads like a Who's Who list of the parts of our society that get shuffled off to the margins (and the worst real estate). The last tenant was a drug rehabilitation home that closed in the 1970s. A century earlier, it was used to quarantine (and presumably bury a good number of) yellow fever sufferers during the 1871 epidemic. It was also home, over time, to a tuberculosis hospice, a home for juvenile delinquents, an insane asylum, and, during the Cold War, Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missiles. Side note: I've found a few of the Nike sites around Chicago – there was an installation right behind the Museum of Science and Industry, for example – and finding them in your city makes for fairly enjoyable urban exploration.

It turns out that New York City is unique in its maintenance of a public cemetery. Other large cities contract with mortuary companies to take bodies that are not claimed from public morgues and the vast majority end up cremated. It may be morbid and unpleasant to think about, but big cities must produce thousands of such corpses every year. If you're interested, here's a photo gallery and informative site from the Hart Island Project, which is trying to piece together records about the thousands of dead who ended up there. There's also a documentary, if you have $25 to drop.