Thursday, April 18, 2013

INSIDE LOOK: Death Project 2013 Investigation: Hart Island

Our Associate Artistic Director, Ian Daniel, recently interviewed an ex-inmate from Rikers Island prison about burying coffins of unknowns, infants, and adults on Hart Island in the Bronx. The interviewee chose to remain anonymous so we will call him Tim.

The potter’s field at Hart Island is the largest cemetery in the United States. Read more about it HERE
Aerial View of Hart Island
NYC's Department of Correction manages Hart Island and uses inmates from Rikers to dig the graves. The public is not allowed on Hart Island, however, family members who can prove their relatives have been buried there can set up visits. 

Wikipedia says,"The dead are buried in trenches. Babies are placed in coffins of various sizes, and are stacked five coffins high and usually twenty coffins across. Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size and are stacked three coffins high and two coffins across. The potter's field is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled 'limbs.' No individual markers are set except for the first child to die of AIDS in New York City who was buried in isolation."
Inmates in 1991 burying coffins holding babies Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Here are some excerpts from Ian’s interview with Tim: 

Ian: When were you in prison?

Tim:  In my adolescence. I was on Rikers for burglary and a stolen car. They used to use adolescents on Hart Island and I believe now they don't do that anymore, they use the adults now. We'd ferry over from there, be there all day and we'd be digging huge ditches, this was a long time ago. The caskets were plain wooden boxes, you know no names, some kinda marking on it, it wasn't that high, not very deep at all but it was long. It was a lot of caskets that went in there.

Ian:  Did you see bodies?

Tim:  Every so often you'd see one of the boxes open and you can see the body in there. I remember once a body was so gross, decomposed, just a horrible sight, scary to look at, cause then you gotta go eat lunch over there which is a little weird to do that shit over there, you know? Some of those guys would joke when we'd stick them in the hole and they'd say, “That was your father I just buried,” “This is the guy we used to get high with," crazy shit like that, and when you could see into the casket they'd say, “Oh that looks like your brother that I knew up on 125th street.”
Ian:  Who's buried there?

Tim:  Most of the time these people are found on the street or they have no money to be buried. So it’s always something like that...a lot of homeless people, people that have no identity, they have no family, or if they do, they don't want anything to do with them. If your brother dies and you don't have any money then he'd end up there.  A lot of stillborns, miscarriages, forgotten souls, that's why it's sad, it just a big lonely graveyard.

Ian:  How did seeing all of this affect you?

Tim:  When I saw all those caskets…it's funny cause my brother died but I never knew him, he died just after being born of pneumonia  and I used to always think about that especially when a baby was being buried. I was thinking about my baby brother and about my mother and father who died and that was just a little weird for me back then.  My parents said they only wanted five kids and he was the fifth but he died then a year or so later they had me so if he had lived they probably wouldn't had me. 

Infant coffins on Hart Island Photo: Stan Grossfeld  
To learn more about Hart Island we recommended that you check out The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization assisting families to relocate those who disappeared in the greater New York area HERE

The Department of Correction recently created a database of Hart Island burial records to help you determine whether someone has been interred on Hart Island, using basic information, such as name, date or location. Check that out HERE

Thanks for sharing, Ian. Check back here every Thursday for an inside look into our investigation in death, dying, and the afterlife for our upcoming performance. 

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