There is an island in the East River, within view of the glittering Manhattan skyline, where the homeless and indigent are buried: an island of the dead. There, amid tall grasses and the calls of seagulls, the poorest New Yorkers — those who had families that couldn’t afford to bury them or who had no family, those who died anonymous and homeless on city streets, and those whose bodies were never claimed from the city morgue — find their final repose.
While some of the people buried on Hart Island are nameless, they are not forgotten. Every second month a knot of people gathers on a windy pier on City Island in the Bronx and boards a ferry to the island. There they say prayers for the dead and stand in silence before the limestone grave markers.
Most of the visitors don’t know anyone on the island, but they say they don’t want anyone to be unmourned, to be returned to God without a prayer said on their behalf.
“Even if we didn’t know them, it’s important. Their lives mattered and we remember their lives,” said Drew Hendrickson, a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan who visited the island in March.
For Owen Rogers, who has been part of the memorial services for three years, the mile-long island is a sacred place.
“It is a place where people return to the God who made us all,” said Rogers, a member of Picture the Homeless, an activist group run by people who are homeless or were in the past. “There is a peace there, but it is an uneasy peace, because these were people who were forgotten in life, who were disrespected, abused and pushed aside.” As he led prayers on a recent trip, Rogers asked God to grant the dead eternal rest, but for the living he prayed for a bit of agitation. “Perhaps it is best God, that our peace be a little disturbed,” so the living are reminded of their duty to the poor and outcast. “There is a gospel mandate about feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. You have to take that seriously. That’s not just a bunch of platitudes,” Rogers said.
Part of our world
Rogers knows the names of a few people buried on the island, including Lewis Haggins, a friend and one of the founders of Picture the Homeless. Haggins died of exposure on the streets of New York and was buried on Hart Island before his friends could locate his body. Once they learned where he had been taken, they fought for permission to visit the island — which is closed to visitors.
Since 1869, when the cemetery was established, 750,000 people have been interred on Hart Island. Currently about 1,400 people a year are laid to rest in its wind-swept expanse. They are under the care of the New York City Department of Corrections, a quirk of jurisdiction owing to the fact that the department used to operate a juvenile reform school on the island, and later a drug treatment facility. Inmates at the city jail are brought to the island by ferry several days a week. They dig graves and perform burials, lowering fellow New Yorkers into numbered graves in simple wooden boxes. A tall marble cross bearing the inscription “He Calleth His Own By Name” stands over the rows of graves.
After much lobbying, Picture the Homeless and the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing worked out an arrangement whereby the Department of Corrections escorts a group for the bimonthly services. Also, St. Mary, Star of the Sea, the Catholic church on nearby City Island, holds an annual service for those buried on Hart Island.
The bimonthly services are humble affairs, just a few people standing respectfully at the graves of strangers, murmuring a few simple prayers.
“These people buried here are part of our world,” said Marc Greenberg, executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, who said remembering and honoring the dead was among religion’s earliest functions. “We try to make some sense of it.”
For Rogers, visiting the graveyard is visiting family. “Them being on that place does not separate us from that community,” he said. “Whether at the shelter or the soup kitchen or on the subway or the streets of the city, you interacted with these people. We may not know their names, but we do cross paths, we are part of the same body of Christ.”