Friday, February 05, 2016

The Power of Place: The Dead of Hart Island

Wasp nest on an old monument:
cemetery we found on the Eastern Shore in Maryland

I tend to listen to NPR a lot. I work from home, often in silence, though sometimes with instrumental music in the background, but I can go long stretches of hours where the only 'voice' I hear is my writing voice. So when I take breaks, I turn on the radio.

Yesterday, I caught a story about the cemetery on Hart Island in NY.

"In New York City, there's a little-known island where as many as a million people are buried."
Hart Island is run by the Department of Corrections and is where they bury the remains of homeless individuals, stillborn babies, and the unclaimed dead.

It is a place that must be thick with ghosts: The island has been home to a workhouse, a hospital, several prisons, a civil war POW camp, a reformatory for delinquent boys, a nike missile base, and now a potter's field.

It was closed to visitors - even the families of the dead - until 2015, when NY opened it up to carefully curated visits once a month.

I was struck by the contrast between the city's use of the island as essentially a dumping ground where bodies are interred by prisoners and the desperation of the families of the dead to see it become a sacred place of memory. 


There is a beautiful cemetery near where I live: Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. It's a place of beauty and solemnity and one I never tire of visiting. I often spend time just wandering around and lightly touching the names on the gravestones. Each name represents a universe; a history stretching back generations.

No matter what you believe about an afterlife, there is power in linking to the past.


My father was the last member of his generation to know where all the family members were buried. For years, I thought about sitting down with him to record the history of the family, at least as much as he knew, from the time his grandparents came to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

While we joked about knowing 'where all the bodies were buried', my father passed away in May of 2015 at the age of 92 and we never did have that conversation.

The graves of my fore-bearers will be like so many of the graves I visit in my cemetery meanderings: names for strangers to trace, histories for them to invent.


I want to walk the earth of Hart Island. I want to honor the silent dead; those who have no one to remember them, to mourn for them. 

Perhaps, in turn, some stranger will linger at my great-grandparents' headstones and share a moment of grace.


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  1. The actor who voiced Disney's animated Peter Pan is one of those buried on Hart Island.