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.

20 thoughts on “NPF: POTTER'S FIELD”

  • Having just returned from a funeral (which, incidentally, was in a cemetery in New York City, although not on Hart Island), this post was, uh, timely.

  • The wikipedia page had this sentence: "More than 850,000 dead are buried there—approximately 2,000 a year. One third of them are infants and stillborn babies – which has been reduced from one half since children's health insurance began to cover all pregnant women in New York State."

    Holy shit, progress!

  • just read a cheap thriller, Gideon's Sword by Preston & Child, in which the pivotal moments took place on Hart Island. i'd never heard of the place until I read the book…fascinating.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I'll have to keep this in mind, since it's almost 100 degrees here in Upstate NY, and has been all week – and I feel that if it goes up another degree or two, I might just drop dead.

    Or kill myself.


    All I can hope for, is that after I die, where I end up, at least it'll be a dry heat!

  • All that soylent green, just goin' to waste, and with the food stamps budget out of control.

    (The next time someone complains that the Republican Party is out of new ideas I'll remember to think to myself, thank goodness!)

  • Chris Arnade had a bit about trying to visit that cemetery in his ongoing photography project documenting the lives of the drug addicts and prostitutes of Hunt's Point. It's pretty heartbreaking. Can't find the URL right now…

  • Zombpocalypse ground zero. Keep an eye on that island.


    BTW, the Nike installation in Milwaukee has now been converted to Henry Maier Festival Grounds, which annually hosts a number of ethnic festivals as well as Summerfest, an eleven day music orgy that claims to be the World's Largest.

  • No Nike missile locations in my city. Because we have a massive nuclear warhead stockpile in the mountains at the edge of town. I guess.

    You also might be interested to know that my city (and county) does have a public cemetery for the unclaimed/destitute. I think it is also a cemetery for bodies that are not unclaimed/destitute, but the city/county contracts with it to accept the unclaimed. Some are known, some are unknown. There was recently a story about the place in the paper; apparently the cemetery and some group arrange for markers and even have a small ceremony when burials are held–to which anyone and everyone is invited.

    My city=Albuquerque, NM

  • Some of those little churchyard cemeteries in Britain have been in use for a thousand years. There must be thousands in a tiny space there, even if there was only a couple of burials a year!

  • There's a city in Austria or Germany that after so long disinters the body, keeps the skull and inscribes it with the relevant information about the person then recycles the plot.

  • This was fascinating. I had never heard of Hart Island. How are there not a thousand horror stories centered on this place??

    Time to find out if there's anything equivalent in my new home, Pittsburgh.

  • Xynzee:

    The city you're probably thinking of is Hallstatt, Austria:

    Most of the quaint old churchyards in Europe treated the interred as tenants, not owners. Bodies stayed in the grave until decomposed, and then another body would be put in there on top, or the bones (as at Hallstatt) pulled out and stored in a charnel house.

    It was only with the rise in population density that modern "park cemeteries" were developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here's one reason why:

  • Cultural practices sure are strange dudes. I never could grok the logic of burying the dead in the ground…but then it doesn't have to do with logic anyway. I am much in favor of cremation, but maybe to avoid the carbon pollution, we should adopt practices like the plains Indians where the dead were set on platforms to be consumed by the birds.

  • T. Corregidor Boyle advises us to go out and bury ourselves up to our necks in our compost piles, then shoot ourselves in the head and let nature take its course. Sounds like a plan.

  • Big dog – I recall an account of a visitor to Bombay (decades ago) relating how the birds ringing the Tower of Silence where the zoroastrians expose their dead sometimes carried off parts of the deceased, raining gobbets onto the nearby rooftops. Said rooftops being flat, functioning as an airy top story for families to gather to escape the heat.

    So…not entirely an ideal solution for urban areas, I guess.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    I read in Bill Bryson's "Home" that old parish chapels in small towns all around England, it appears that the church foundations are sinking into the ground. Apparently, the reality is that the centuries of biological turnover in the surrounding parishes actually RAISES THE EARTH with the sheer volume of corpses.

    It's too wonderful not to be true.

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