top of page
  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Mass Graves: Mass Mournings

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Burying unclaimed victims of COVID-19 in New York's Potter's Field (Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters)


Is New York digging trenches for mass graves?

The short answer is yes.

I, first, saw this news on a Facebook post when the United States first entered the COVID-19 crisis. Immediately, I cast it aside as false and sensational.

Then, in April, a somber CNN reporter told the news to an equally somber newscaster. An aerial shot showed a trench, which was beginning to be filled with wooden caskets. The pictures were disturbing.

Is this something new?


Since 1869, New York has been burying the indigent, the unclaimed the homeless and the diseased in mass graves on Hart Island, which is in the north of the Bronx and east of City Island, according to Wikipedia.

More than 1 million people are buried on Hart Island.

The island’s first public use was as a training ground for the United States Colored Troops in 1864. Since then, Hart Island has had many uses, including a Union Civil War prison camp, a women’s psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a homeless shelter, a boy’s reformatory, a jail and a drug rehabilitation center.

In 1869, the original 45-acre burial ground replaced Manhattan sites at Washington Square Park and the main branch of the New York City Public Library. Now 131 acres, it has become known as City Cemetery and Potter’s Field.

Where does the term “potter’s field” come from? The Bible.

The high priests of Jerusalem bought the first potter’s field with the 30 pieces of silver which Judas Iscariot received for identifying Jesus. After Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas returned the coins to the priests, who took them but said: “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury because it is the price of blood.” After the remorseful Judas hung himself, they used the money to buy a field in which to bury strangers, criminals and the poor. The field had been the site where potters collected red clay for making ceramics, thus “potter’s field”.

Why are potter’s fields and mass burials upsetting?

Mass burials signify war and hostilities leading to a sudden onslaught of bodies belonging to the unknown. Potter’s fields represent the deaths of people who either had no one to mourn them or no one who could afford a burial place. The anonymity and the lack of loved ones sadden me because they say that those lost lives did not mean anything to anybody. And surely, every life is significant.

When the writer Alice Walker found the unmarked grave of fellow writer Zora Neale Hurston in 1973, she ordered a headstone, which had Hurston’s name etched on it and the descriptor, “Genius of the South”. The headstone symbolized Hurston’s place in the world. Walker eulogized Hurston, author of the Harlem Renaissance classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in granite.

The bodies of COVID-19 deceased patients taken to Hart Island are not the first victims of a disease to be buried there. In 1985, correction officers directed prisoners from Rikers Island to keep the first 17 bodies of those who had died of AIDS-related conditions out of the shallow trenches and, instead, bury them deep in individual graves quarantined in a remote spot because of the fear and ignorance surrounding AIDS, according to The New York Times on July 3, 2018.

“The island would go on to receive scores, if not hundreds, of people who died during the AIDS epidemic, which during the 1980 and 1990 killed more than 100,000 people in New York, about a quarter of AIDS deaths nationwide during the same period.

“Trying to pin down the precise number of those with AIDS buried on Hart Island is difficult. A longstanding stigma about the island and criticism that the burial practices are crude and outdated have made city officials reluctant to provide many details. Officials at several city agencies involved in the burials refused interview requests to discuss the issue and insisted that no data or any other information was available on AIDS burials.

“But piecing together an estimate is possible by surveying the many hospitals that treated AIDS patients during the epidemic and sent bodies to potter’s field. By that accounting, the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS.”

Potter’s Field has been variously described as the largest tax-financed cemetery in the United States, the largest such cemetery in the world and one of the largest mass graves in the U.S.

As of April 14, 10,367 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 since the virus appeared in December in China. These numbers include 3,778 “probable” deaths, where doctors felt confident enough of the cause of death to list it on the death certificate, according to Global News, a Canadian website. These people did not make it to a hospital for a test.

Who were the AIDS dead?

“The stigma and lifestyle associated with AIDS left many patients – whether young, gay or poor intravenous drug users – prone to being estranged from loved ones,” according to The New York Times.

“Private burials were difficult to arrange because many funeral directors either refused to handle AIDS corpses or charged higher fees.”

Who are the COVID-19 dead?

They are the dead who have gone unclaimed in two weeks, said Freddi Goldstein, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary. Typically, the city morgue waits 30 to 60 days before shipping bodies to Hart Island, but the COVID-19 crisis has shortened the waiting period. Before the new coronavirus, there were 25 buried each week. Now, there are 25 each weekday.

On April 10, Mayor de Blasio tweeted his response to public concern: “There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual and every body (sic) will be treated with dignity.”

Melinda Hunt founded the non-profit Hart Island Project to support families of the buried by trying to improve access to the island and make burial records more accessible. She

tweeted a response to the mayor:

“Hart Island burials are not disrespectful now that inmate labor has ended. There is not enough testing to know how many people buried died of complications from COVID-19. You need to visit Hart Island and honor the buried. Many families have no choice.”

De Blasio tweeted: “The heartbreaking (sic) numbers of deaths we’re seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately. Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York can provide.”

Hunt, a visual artist, said that she began going to Hart Island in 1991 during the AIDS epidemic, according to CNN. “So many of my friends in the arts community just disappeared and we never knew what happened to their bodies. . . It took a long time before we flew a drone and found those gravesites.”

“There’s no real choice here,” Hunt said. “This is where the majority of COVID-19 victims are going to be buried. It disproportionately affects the low-income community who can’t really isolate and avoid using the subways. By the same token, those same people can’t afford a funeral. One day, every New Yorker will know somebody interred on the little-known island. The idea that you’ve never heard of this place and you don’t know anybody buried there, those days are over.”

“A Hart Island burial is not disrespectful,” she said. “It’s a very sacred place.”

Currently, in the coronavirus crisis, each coffin has the name of the deceased scrawled in large letters on it, which is meant to help in a later disinterment. The bodies are disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through DNA, photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner. There was an average of 72 disinterments per year from 2007 to 2009. Usually, adults are disinterred, not children, who are mostly babies. Therefore, adults’ coffins are staggered to expedite removal. Regulations stipulate that the coffins, generally, must remain untouched for 25 years, except in cases of disinterment.

In the past, inmates from Rikers Island were paid .50 per hour to dig the trenches and graves. In the coronavirus crisis, inmates are not currently working to bury the deceased due to social distancing rules, said Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections on Snopes, a fact-checking website. A contractor’s excavators dig the long narrow trenches.

When we bury our dead, or burn them on pyres, or sit shiva with them, we ritualize their death. We remember and honor them, recognizing that they matter. We try to make sense of their departure from this existence and, in so doing, make sense of ourselves. Without the ritual, there is only a yawning emptiness for the community and aching loneliness for individuals in it.

We must mourn for those who are being piled into trenches on Hart Island. Mass burials are deserving of mass mourning.

We must honor our dead. They are all our dead.

78 views0 comments


bottom of page