As New York City fights to keep up with a surge in deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, its age-old practice of burying the unclaimed dead in mass graves has come under the microscope.
Hart Island is a mile-long patch of land in the Long Island Sound off the coast of the Bronx, which normally slips under the radar for most New Yorkers. In recent weeks, the unassuming island made headlines after drones captured aerial images of workers loading simple caskets three-deep into trenches wide enough to fit over 100 bodies.
As the mortality rate from coronavirus surged and city and hospital morgues filled up, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) reduced the amount of time that it would store the deceased to about 15 days from 30. Remains left unclaimed during that time frame are buried on Hart Island, where caskets are labeled and numbered in case someone comes looking for a loved one later.
On Wednesday, OCME said it would transfer some of the deceased to temporary storage in freezers, instead of Hart Island, to both relieve strain on brimming morgues and also avoid temporary interment. But OCME spokesperson Aja Worthy Davis said that if next of kin or relatives cannot be identified after an "extensive," 15-day search, the remains will still go to Hart.
With shorter holding terms, the surge in deaths in New York City has translated to a bump in unclaimed bodies and, subsequently, burials on Hart Island. There are typically about 25 people buried on the island in an average week, but these days, workers are handling almost that same volume daily. On Monday, laborers buried 17 people on Hart Island. Tuesday saw 20 burials, according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Jason Kersten.
Hart Island burials are typically performed by Rikers Island inmates, but the demand for this type of labor surged just as the prison population fell. Rikers released some 1,500 inmates in early April to stem the spread of coronavirus, the New York Post reported. Adding to the challenge presented by the reduced prison workforce were concerns among authorities over how proper social distancing could be maintained among working prisoners.
On April 6, the city awarded J. Pizzirusso Landscaping (JPL) a contract to supply laborers for the island instead via an emergency executive order. A Parks Department spokesperson said the city approached seven contractors that had a large workforce and relevant skills. JPL, which supplies about 10 to 12 workers daily, was the only contractor willing and able to perform the work in the appropriate time frame. According to Parks Department director of media relations, Meghan Lalor, financial terms were not disclosed, and no end date has been determined for the work.
As more information has emerged about Hart Island, the public reaction was swift.
When asked about the gravesite, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that the island is processing more burials than usual, but refuted that the trenches full of caskets constituted "mass burials."
"There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity," De Blasio tweeted.
Just days later, police confiscated a drone from renowned photojournalist George Steinmetz, who was flying it low over Hart Island from neighboring City Island. According to Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel at National Press Photographers Association, Steinmetz was cited for violating avigation laws — or launching and landing any sort of aircraft outside of a designated area. Osterreicher said he was aware of one other individual to whom something like this happened.
"Out of respect to the families and friends of those buried on Hart Island, we have a longstanding policy of not permitting photography of an active burial site from Hart Island. It is disrespectful," Department of Corrections' Kersten said.
Osterreicher called the avigation law "antiquated" and said Kersten's contention that the drone footage is disrespectful is "inappropriate."
"We've seen so many times that is really just a pretext for preventing the press from doing its job. We weren't looking at bodies, we were looking at unidentified, matching, plain, wooden coffins," he said. "And I think in terms of trying to go down the route of respect for the dead, they are burying these people in mass graves — it is not the most respectful way for people to be buried."
In an Instagram post containing images that Steinmetz saved from police custody, the photojournalist said he has a court date tentatively scheduled for August.
The images may come as shock to some, but this practice of burying the dead in mass graves on Hart Island is actually nothing new. National Geographic dug up an image by famed muckraker Joseph Riis of workers in the 1890s burying the dead in a similar fashion. Plus, the island has a long history associated with death by disease. Victims of many an outbreak — whether it be tuberculosis in the 1870s, AIDS in the 1980s, or influenza in 2008 have landed in the potter's field, National Geographic reported. Victims of COVID-19, it seems, will be no different.