Since 1869, an estimated 850,000 of New York’s unclaimed, impoverished dead have been interred on Hart Island off the coast of the Bronx. They are the city’s ultimate nobodies, collected and ferried over to the island’s 101-acre potter’s field to be stacked in pine coffins and buried by city-prison inmates.
Noteworthy attempts are now being made to pierce the anonymity that grips the burial ground. Melinda Hunt, a determined artist, has spent two decades challenging the city’s secretive bureaucracy to open its books. Using Freedom of Information requests, she built the Hart Island Project, a Web site that has painstakingly organized thousands of names that until recently were scribbled in inaccessible ledgers.
In April, the city followed her remarkable lead and opened a searchable database on the Web site of the Department of Correction, which manages potter’s field in a closely guarded but respectful way. The database provides only a partial listing, but families now have places to look for the names of missing loved ones who may be buried in the cemetery.
Meanwhile, across the waters in the Bronx, Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group, has organized the Interfaith Friends of Potter’s Field, religious leaders who hold memorial services for those in potter’s field.
These efforts by the living face up to the silent rebuke from the dead in potter’s field, where for years a marker reminded the rare visitor, “No longer do we cast shadows on the ground as you do.”
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