Hart Island

I visited Hart Island this morning. It was my 43rd birthday present to myself. I made the arrangements weeks ago.

I knew a little bit about Hart Island before today. I knew that over the course of its long history, it has been:

  • a prison;
  • a boys’ reformatory;
  • a hospital;
  • a psychiatric institution for women; and
  • a tuberculosis sanatorium.

I know it exists largely as a burial ground for all those who die and go unclaimed from the city morgue.

I know that Hart Island has a dark history.

I also know that it’s uninhabited by humans. For me, that was probably the most enticing part. I love the idea of seeing what’s left behind after we’re no longer.

__________________________

Other than what’s written above, I didn’t know much about what to expect when I left the house this morning. I didn’t know how I would feel. I didn’t know what I would see. I was nervous, anxious, excited, and a little scared. All I was told was that someone from the Department of Corrections would take me over to Hart Island from City Island by boat. I was told that I couldn’t bring any contraband along with me and that my visit had to be completed in under an hour and a half.

I’d never been to City Island before. Actually, I’m not sure I ever knew it existed until today. It was kind of baffling that City Island is a part of New York City. I kept having to remind myself that I was indeed within one of the five boroughs. It looks so much like a small fishing town one might find along the coast of New England. Crab shacks and seafood restaurants cover the main drive, which isn’t long at all. The side streets are lined with small, beach-like homes and docks shoot off from each dead end.

It felt strange knowing that one of the biggest cities in the world was only a few miles away. When you’re there, it just doesn’t seem possible.

The sun was bright and the air crisp, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the wind was unrelenting. Nothing could compete with the wind. It was the star of today’s show.

It was so cold.

I parked a few blocks away from the dock and stopped in at the local diner to purchase a cup of coffee. It cost me a dollar. I didn’t know you could buy a coffee for a dollar in America anymore.

I’d forgotten my gloves. The coffee warmed my hands like a hug.

I walked toward the waterfront. At the end of the road stood a tall fence. Signs read: DO NOT ENTER and PROPERTY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTION. There were several trailers set up beyond the fence. A DOC boat waited at the end of a long dock. Beyond it was Hart Island.

To my right, million dollar condos were going up. Construction did its best to pierce through the wind.

I waited. I was early. I’m always early.

A few other people began to walk up. They came in groups. A guard exited the trailer and unlocked the tall fence. He checked our IDs and told us to head down toward the boat at the end of the dock.

Eight guests showed up in total. Two separate groups and one individual. All of us women.

One of the groups consisted of four interior designers from Pratt. They were collecting research for a project on spiritual space and how it makes a person feel. I guess, in this case, that spiritual space was Hart Island.

The other group of three were from a zen center in Manhattan.

And then there was me.

Several people asked me why I was there. I didn’t know what to say. (Research? Curiosity? I’ve been reading so much dystopian literature lately, I figured it’d be kind of interesting to visit an island right off the coast of Manhattan that is totally uninhabited by human beings and instead harbors one of the darkest histories ever? It was a 43rd birthday gift to myself?)

Why was I there? I wasn’t sure. I’m not sure I will ever have the answer to that.

(Does it matter?)

__________________________

Earlier, I’d been stuck in traffic trying to get over the George Washington Bridge during rush hour. On top of the usual traffic, our EZ Pass died months ago and I still haven’t gotten a new one. So I’ve been going old school and sitting in line to pay tolls to an actual human being. It’s not been nearly as annoying as one might assume. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed it. I’ve been making it my thing to be extra nice to the folks working the booths because, I mean, why not?

So, today I stopped at the base of the George Washington Bridge, rolled down my window and said, “HELLO! How much do you I owe you, sir?”

And this beautiful human standing inside this little blue booth, he looked at me and said, “Well, HELLO! I love your energy! Fifteen dollars!”

“OK! I happen to really like you too! You are awesome!”

And we both laughed as I drove away.

That kid made my morning. And suddenly the two hours it took to drive 27 miles didn’t matter all that much anymore.

Currency.

__________________________

The boat ride from City Island to Hart Island only took a few minutes. On our way, we rode past a small island called Rat Island which had recently been auctioned off to a resident of City Island for 140,000. I am not sure why, but I found that sort of awesome. I would totally buy a rocky island the size of a NYC apartment inhabited by rats for 140,000.

After we docked and got off the boat, we walked along another wooden dock. Small porcelain angels lined the walkway. Tokens of love and loss. The wind was even more intense on Hart Island as it’s only a mile long and a quarter mile wide. The trees had shed their leaves months earlier, and like the skeletons of an army of soldiers, they greeted us. They lined a path that lead to a hospital on the other side of the island. They seemed proud to be there, sturdy. Wise somehow.

I watched a truck in the distance, it was coming around the trees along the waterfront. It was refrigerated. The words “MEDICAL EXAMINER” were painted on its side.

A woman with the Pratt group asked the officer about the mass graves. He took polite offense to the term. (Our guide was one of the nicest people I’ve met in recent years.)

“What do you think of when you picture a mass grave?” He asked her.

Another woman chimed in, “I see where you’re going with this, when you hear the term ‘Mass Grave’ you conjure up visions of the holocaust—bodies and bodies on top of one another—but that’s what this is, no? I mean, they’re mass graves, no?”

He thought about this for a second and nodded.

“I guess you might say that. But I don’t see them as mass graves.” He continued. “These folks who are sent here, we bury them. We do what we can. This island, while it may not seem like it today in this wind, it’s absolutely beautiful during most months. We have a group of wrens that return to the same nest every year. It’s right over there. And they come back every year. The sun rises from over there,” he points, “and sets over there. And those trees, I tell you, during the spring and summer months, those trees are something else. I guess I just don’t see this place as a mass grave.”

We all stood silent for a while.

“Those trees are some of the toughest trees.” He said. “I love those trees. I planned the whole gazebo to face those trees.”

“I noticed the soldiers.” I thought.

A flock of birds flew overhead. An area mostly untouched by humans was bustling with wildlife.

As we stood in the gazebo, the officer pointed to a plot of green grass.

“There used to be a building there. But during one recent winter, the snow made the roof cave in so we had to take the walls down too.” He shivered. “This spot used to be a lot warmer before that building came down.”

To our right, stood the old administrative offices, an ancient building with missing windows and a door that had fallen in. The brick facade was covered in peeling paint from the wind, rain and years of neglect. Behind that building, sat an old church. Parts of it were falling in on itself but its century-old beauty protects it from judgment.

It’s hard to call something ugly, useless or unnecessary when it has so many years in its corner.

We should stop disregarding things that age.

One women asked the officer how many unclaimed bodies they get per week. “Like, three? Do you ever see three?” She asked him.

“Oh, no. Never three.”

Relief. Because three unclaimed bodies at least once a week in NYC, well, that seems like an awful lot.

“No, usually it’s more like 25.”

Silence.

“Every time they come?” She asked. “Like, every time?”

“Almost” He replied. “Yes.”

Just then, the refrigerated truck from earlier pulled up alongside the gazebo. A man got out and walked over to the officer with a clipboard. The officer signed something, said a few things we didn’t understand, or chose not to, and then the guy returned to the truck.

“What was that?” One of the women asked.

“I had to sign off on today’s burial. They just finished.”

“How many bodies were delivered today?” I asked him.

“Eighteen.”

More silence. A few tears. The wind moved about us wordless.

“You can break ground when it’s this cold?” Another woman asked.

“We do our digging in advance.” He said. “Assuming the channel is permissible for the boat, we bury the dead no matter what the weather is like.”

I watched the truck pull away and wait at the dock for our boat. Empty, it would be riding back with us, only I didn’t know that at the time. I would only realize this as we got off the boat on City Island and at that time I would say this out loud to no one:

“I’m so sorry you had to live that way.”

At one point in time, Hart Island definitely held some sorrow. It has some horrific years among its history. There are unspeakable horrors that took place there. But the Hart Island of today, the fact that the unclaimed are brought and buried there, that’s not the part that I find haunting. That’s no longer the part I find troubling. It’s not the final resting place that makes me feel sad for the unclaimed.

Hart Island itself is not sad, quite the opposite. Being unclaimed in death is not inherently sad either. Who cares ultimately what happens after we die? It’s before that, it’s life that makes that so sad. It’s the before Hart Island that makes the unclaimed so sad. It’s what lead those people to become unclaimed, that’s the truly horrible part.

No one should be unclaimed while living.

But what Hart Island does? Well, today, it makes the terrible truth seem a little less awful. And maybe it was because of the officer we had; maybe he shined a different light onto my visit today, but I have to thank him for it in the end. He made me hopeful, joyful even. Determined.

In truth, I did not expect to walk away from Hart Island feeling relatively peaceful. I did not expect to see so much life. I definitely didn’t expect to spend my morning with such a passionate, thought-provoking correctional officer, one whose words will sit with me for days, if not years to come. And while I will likely never see him again, nor will I ever have the chance to visit Hart Island again, today’s visit changed my life in such a strange and beautiful way.

I don’t want to overlook the people I live among. I’m going to try and claim them all. I will make eye contact. I will notice them. I will help whenever I can. I will smile as much as possible. I will hug them when it’s appropriate. I will make myself available to them. I will make sure that they know that when they aren’t seen, someone will have noticed.

No one in life should feel unclaimed. No one in life should feel they may end up unclaimed, even if they are.

But in death? The unclaimed are buried just like the claimed; there’s no difference in the way we decompose. And if you believe in comparing cemetery views, and that some are better than others, well, the unclaimed of Hart Island don’t have it all that bad in death.

In death we’re all the same. That’s not the sad part. Hart Island isn’t the sad part. The sad parts happen before we get to that point. The sad parts take place among the living.

I want less sad parts.

The wind from every side today; a dollar cup of coffee I embraced like a hug; the number 18; trees that stand like bare soldiers; people who must dig holes in advance; 150-year-old foundations broken up by determined grass and bushes—like a dream, all these things exist within my head now.

Whether you call them mass graves or not, in a few months, a wren will return to a nest on Hart Island where it will start a new family. And those trees that stood like soldiers will wear a new green uniform. The church will further crumble and the grass will fill its place. Life goes on in the most glorious way right before our eyes and most of the time, we’re not even paying attention.

I need to start paying attention. I need to leave nothing unclaimed.

7 Comments

  1. Oh my…I am rendered speechless. So evocative. Exquisitely written.

    Reply

    1. Coming from you, that means a whole lot. I thank you for your kind comment, Amy.

      Reply

  2. Have you read this incredible article? Not everyone buried there is unclaimed in life, which I’m only saying so you know that those 25 people per week weren’t necessarily unloved or forgotten (although there are *plenty others* in this world who are and aren’t buried there). What an amazing thing you were able to do. I’m so glad you gave that to yourself for your birthday.

    Reply

  3. Interesting and well written…..I’m curious. You said: “nor will I ever have the chance to visit Hart Island again,”. Why not? You made the first choice.

    Reply

    1. It was really tough getting there. While I would love to go back in the spring some time, I don’t think it’ll be doable. But, you’re right. I could go back if I wanted to. :] Maybe I will someday.

      Reply

  4. Wow – what an incredible story. I have to know more about the history of this place. I had no idea it even existed. Very well written, and something for us all to think about.

    Reply

  5. Beautifully written! And a great reminder to make every moment, every interaction count. Life is so short and the world filled with so much pain…it does my heart good to know that you are making it better with every breath. Thank you.
    ~B

    Reply

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