Can We Please Stop Using the Term “Mass Graves?” Hart Island’s is a Mission of Mercy

Questionable terminology as the world learns about Hart Island

Bradley Spinelli
8 min readApr 12, 2020
Aerial view of Hart Island. Photo: Erlend Bjørtvedt (CC-BY-SA)

Today, The New York Times published a story describing “that it was likely some coronavirus victims” will soon be buried on Hart Island.

Stories about “mass graves” have been circulating for over a week, and the use of the term, both by recognized press outlets and extensively on social media, is feeding the hysteria we hope to starve as we fight our way through this epidemic as a city.

“Mass grave” is a terrifying term that instantly connotes the Holocaust, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and other such atrocities against humanity. But the phrase does not apply to the dignity in the treatment of the deceased on Hart Island, or the mission of mercy inherent in the tradition of the Potter’s Field.

Since 1868, Hart Island, in Long Island Sound, has been New York City’s public cemetery for the indigent and unclaimed dead. The tradition itself comes from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 27, which many Americans might hear at Easter services tomorrow (hopefully via streaming). After the death of Judas:

“The chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

Many New Yorkers may be hearing the name of Hart Island for the first time. But during ordinary times, it serves a noble purpose. It is a deeply Christian tradition — charity. Caring for the unwanted, the poor, and the unclaimed.

Unfortunately, “unclaimed” is a word that might be evolving deeper nuances of meaning.

Grim Realities

The reality of how Hart Island burials are conducted may seem unusually practical. The island is maintained by the Department of Corrections, and is not open to the public. The work is done by inmates of Riker’s Island. The plain pine boxes are stacked three high, two across. “Each plot can hold 150 adult coffins or 1,000 infant coffins,” and “approximately 100 disinterments are done each year.”

New York’s 2008 Pandemic Influenza Surge Plan indicated that Hart Island could be used as a temporary burial site if necessary, and also allowed for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to change its storage policy, which was the other shoe heard dropping this week: Instead of holding bodies for 30 days until claimed by families, they would now be held for just 14 days.

In all caution, to clarify:

If morgue officials make contact with a relative of a deceased person within 14 days, the body will not be moved to Hart Island, said [NYC Mayor Press Secretary Freddi Goldstein].

It’s clear that this pandemic might lead to some painful solutions. People who are not homeless nor indigent are now at greater risk of being “unclaimed” for other reasons: We aren’t able to congregate or travel. New York is home to immigrants from all over the world and all over our nation, making it more likely that surviving family members would be elsewhere.

According to Reuters, quoting both Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokesperson of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), and Jason Kersten, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections:

The island may also be used as a site for temporary interments should deaths surge past the city’s morgue capacity, a point that has not yet been reached, Kersten and Worthy-Davis said.

“We’re all hoping it’s not coming to this,” Kersten said. “At the same time, we’re prepared if it does.”

OCME can store about 800 to 900 bodies in its buildings, and has room to store about 4,000 bodies in some 40 refrigerated trucks it can dispatch around the city to hospitals, which typically have only small morgues, Worthy-Davis said.

The caution and restraint is laudable, if perhaps a little optimistic. We should be prepared to face the harsh realities, without unnecessary triggering.

The Times story sums up the fears of the public, using hyperbolic language: (emphasis mine)

The plan is a touchy one because burials on the island, which is off-limits to the public, have long borne a stigma. Bodies interred on the island can be retrieved for later reburial, but it is certain to heighten the horror if relatives of Covid-19 victims find out that their loved one has been put in a wooden box and piled in a trench on a forbidden island overseen by the city’s jail system.

Forgive a simple question, but — why? Why does it have to “heighten the horror?” This is the way we’ve handled the unclaimed dead in New York, and it’s widely considered to have been done with dignity.

The Times also uses the term, “mass graves,” which doesn’t denote the organization of the operation or the preparation for disinterment. It is a phrase that appears nowhere on the Department of Corrections’ website, which refers to its service as “the City’s public cemetery” as a “solemn duty.”

Drones and Hysteria

The rumors and hysteria over “mass graves” have been circulating for at least a week. It got worse when Council member Mark D. Levine tweeted that New York would be burying bodies in “a NYC park,” which was quickly corrected by Freddi Goldstein:

Various stories tried to correct the telling, but the word was out, and spreading.

Drone footage, apparently shot by Reuters and used in the Times story, has been repurposed by Now This and viewed 6.5 million times.

It says nothing about COVID-19, and might not have qualified as “news” if run a year ago, with the public still oblivious of Hart Island. But they used that term: “mass graves.” The comments and retweets are anything but reasonable and exactly as expected. Taken out of context, with no commentary, the scene looks bleak. But the protective gear being worn by the workers is, if anything, heartening, and the somber mood is exactly appropriate. It’s the terminology that’s triggering.

The workers in the video are not Riker’s inmates, but contract laborers:

There are about two dozen bodies a day, five days a week buried on the island, said Jason Kersten.

“For social distancing and safety reasons, city-sentenced people in custody are not assisting in burials for the duration of the pandemic,” Kersten said.

Another video referred to in the Times’ story was released by Melinda Hunt, depicting another drone’s-eye view of burial activity on Hart Island, shot on April 2. The narration, by a former Riker’s inmate who worked the detail, describes the escalation of burials and repeatedly states that their work was done with “dignity.” Hunt is the founder of the Hart Island Project, which, according to their website, “advocates for increased transparency of New York City burial procedures and assists individuals in gaining access to actual graves and information.” The Project is credited with helping to bring about the transfer of Hart Island to the Parks department, which was just approved in December.

As somewhat of a Hart Island obsessive — I first learned about it in 2000 while researching a novel about an epidemic in New York — I have long considered Hunt an ally in the distance, and she’s quoted in the Times:

“This is a tried and tested system of burial, one the city used during the 1918 flu epidemic,” she said. “It works, and you want to go with a system that’s actually working. This is what we need.”

I couldn’t agree more. Which is why the recent Tweets from the Hart Island Project are so strange:

But why is it NOW “not disrespectful?” What is the intimation that it was disrespectful before? Because people didn’t know about it, or because the people — and infants, and the stillborn — being interned there were “not ours?” Perhaps I underestimate how citizens might imagine being buried by “criminals,” or perhaps they underestimate the people who ordinarily do the rough, undesirable work in this country—like burying the dead in cemeteries. It’s hard to think about, an upsetting topic that’s difficult to weigh in a society that prefers to keep death out of sight, but this pandemic isn’t going to allow us to ignore the harsh realities. But we can learn to refine our vocabulary.

In the Tweet above, De Blasio says, “I want to make sure everyone knows what they’re seeing and what is actually happening on Hart Island,” and again, I couldn’t agree more. But:

The mayor told TV station NY1 that under such a contingency plan bodies of COVID-19 victims would be buried individually — not in mass graves — so families could later reclaim them.

Again — families could always reclaim bodies buried on Hart Island. For De Blasio to set up this expectation of being “buried individually” is exasperating. The solution is simple: stop saying “mass graves.”

The Times story also reports that it is “unclear if the recent surge in burials” on Hart Island “were bodies stored in morgues before the pandemic hit, or those felled by the virus,” as the Department of Correction doesn’t receive information on cause of death. Without testing, we have no idea who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t, and as has been widely reported, that lack of knowledge is doubled for the dead.

New York City mayoral spokesperson, Freddi Goldstein, did make a statement addressing the likelihood that COVID-19 victims are buried there, saying, “For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members. We will continue using the Island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID-19 who fit this description will be buried on the Island in the coming days.”

Fourteen days isn’t a lot of time, and gives us all the more reason to keep a close eye on our friends and families.

Here, now, under quarantine, in the middle of Easter weekend, we can all be grateful that this simple act of charity continues.



Bradley Spinelli

Books: Killing Williamsburg, The Painted Gun. FIlm: #AnnieHall. Words: Bedford+Bowery.