The largest communal grave in the United States is not located near a Civil War battlefield, nor Arlington Cemetery or its like, but rather here in New York. Across the channel from the Bronx’s City Island, a small uninhabited island holds New York City’s ghastliest secret. Close to one million corpses push up the dirt in Potter’s Field, buried by the hands of Riker’s finest. The site, composed of the homeless, stillborn children and loved ones of those unable to pay for their own burial ceremony, shrouds itself in mystery, legend and secrecy. Until July of last year, families of those deceased were unable to visit. To this day, photographers and those unassociated with the dead are still barred from entering.
Infamous for their poor mortuary practices, the Correctional Department and the morgues responsible for tagging and cataloguing corpses continue to butcher burials and disrespect the deceased. In 1993, the stillborn daughter of Laurie Grant became untraceable after Grant signed over the burial rights to the city. Five years ago, she discovered her baby rests in the same grave with almost 1,000 other babies in small, stacked boxes. More recently, Katrina DeJesus attempted to visit her baby buried at Hart Island for the past 12 years. Upon boarding the ferry, the captain informed her that they could not find her baby. These instances are two of many in which New York City’s postmortem operations fall short of properly and respectfully performing burials. Every human being has a fundamental right to reverence. It is not a privilege, it is not something that can be bought, it is not something accompanying social status. The dead must be allowed to rest.
This negligence speaks to the lack of respect allowed to the poor and disenfranchised of New York. In life and in death, the city heaps disadvantages and hardships onto those of a low socioeconomic status. Yet one’s financial state does not exclude them from humanity or empathy. In 2014, the body of a deceased woman, Rebecca Alper, could not be found. The city dug up over 200 bodies only to discover that the woman buried in Alper’s box was not her. As it turned out, Alper’s corpse had been cremated by accident. This behavior constitutes a blatant and fraudulent violation of human rights. A human being does not lose their bodily autonomy after death. The right to one’s own body is passed on posthumously to a loved one to respect one’s will.
A person maintains a right to bodily integrity after death. New York’s treatment of the poor and burdened represents a larger issue of robbing humans of their bodily autonomy. The city desperately needs to intervene in current burial practice in order to give every person a proper passage.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 11 print edition. Email Connor Borden at [email protected]