I knew, of course, that New York City has a potter’s field. That knowledge, however, did not blunt the impact of drone footage of laborers burying in long trenches the plain wooden coffins of coronavirus victims. The pine boxes, startlingly pale against the dark slash of subsoil, stacked edge to edge, two deep.
More than one million New Yorkers have been buried on Hart Island since the late 1860s. In early April 2020, as hundreds, then thousands, died a day from Covid-19, the city began to bury unclaimed bodies, at least temporarily, on the island.
Hart Island Project, a nonprofit group that has pushed for more public access and awareness regarding the island, published the drone video. The Project has created database (with map) of burials on Hart Island since 1980 and Traveling Cloud Museum, an interactive storytelling platform that provides information about each person, including “a clock that measures the period of time they have been buried in anonymity until someone adds a story, image, epitaph, sound or video.
Hart Island Project’s work and website are powerful models for what might be done to restore to memory the dead of Rountree, Odd Fellows, and Vick Cemeteries.
For more regarding initial efforts to identify Hart Island’s dead, please see “Finding Names for Hart Island’s Forgotten,” a story by Cara Buckley published 24 March 2008 in the New York Times:
“For her part, Ms. [Melinda] Hunt believes that Hart Island should allow public visits, at least once a year, though Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, said security would be a concern because inmates work there. Ms. Hunt also said the need was urgent for Hart Island’s burial records to be available in a centralized database, an expense that Mr. Morello said the Correction Department did not have the resources to cover. Thousands of records, handwritten in ledgers, were lost in a fire in the 1970s. Ms. Hunt said she would be applying to a state arts foundation for money to post the records online, and to collect the stories behind them.
“‘People have the right to know where their family members are buried in the city,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to show a hidden part of American culture that I think is important, that I think is overlooked. These are public records. They belong to the people of New York.’”
Hat tip to Renee Lapyerolerie.