Friday, 27 April 2012

Hart Island

Hart Island is a subject I came across a few years ago. The idea of a Potter’s Field was new to me. In Europe we don’t tend to segregate the dead by means of financial resources in such a clear and organised manner. Yes, Europe has 'experienced potter's fields' in history and there is an awareness of the ‘best end’ of a cemetery and the ‘cheap seats’. That has always been the way of things. Have a look at Kensal green or Highgate Cemetery and you can see the idea of wealth and privilege in burials. There is always the aristocracy of the dead. The rich and the poor are always segregated in life and also in death. However, in Europe there has always been more integration within one cemetery rather than having two separate cemeteries. There is a wonderful photo essay on the island that I recommend you to read to understand about the island and the atmosphere created.

In the English parish Church, we find that the rich and the poor may be more intimately combined and the layers of burials inter-weave and overlap so that we are all reintegrated over time, no-matter our wealth or status. The South-side and East-end of the Church would always be colonised by the rich although the poor would creep round the corner and the rich are sometimes interred on the North side as the cemetery filled up. In England, there is something of an egalitarian juxtapositioning of the bodies so that we become more of a unity. In the newer Metropolitan (largely secular)  cemeteries from 1855 there is more scope for segregation based on the sheer size of the cemeteries and the tendency not to re-use grave space as was the case in the older and crowded parish cemeteries. The large Municipal cemeteries in the North of England are replete with stone monuments that speak of money, industry and pride although even here the poor could be buried close by and the public grave was usually in the same cemetery rather than being placed elsewhere.

North America has another tradition and that is in the segregation of the rich and the poor into completely separate entities. The Potter’s field is a sort of ‘apartheid’ where the poor are apparently separate but equal. Oh dear and alas for the Republic that preaches equality  only for people to be segregated in death. Hart Island is the largest cemetery in North America and as such it demands our attention and curiosity. Whilst Europe is, to its eternal shame,  the location of huge cemeteries at Auschwitz and other extermination centers; Hart Island is different. Hart island is an example of a gargantuan peace-time cemetery that is based on economic apartheid rather than genocide and mass murder. Hart Island is a cemetery that is based on the uncaring bureaucracy of the City. People live and they die in the City without care and support and they end up discarded with the thinnest veneer of decency. The dead are stacked and warehoused on Hart Island by the hands of the prisoners who represent something of the poor who have always been the inmates of prisons and places of detention.

Am I making a bid for European intellectual superiority? Well no, I’m not making that assertion. Europe, after all, carries the historic burden of so much blood and misery perpetrated against political, sexual, religious and ethnic minorities. Instead, Hart Island represents something of the casual way in which human life comes to an end and the City simply disposes of the dead. The ‘little person’ without family or friends can come to a sticky end and find themselves in an unmarked grave out in the channel. The problem for me is that Hart Island has become something like a cultural and metaphorical  ‘oubliette’ where we forget poor people in "plain sight" of wealth. People are disposed of and ‘deleted from history. Even the records of the dead are uncared for and left to rot and burn as if they had never existed.  

When I first heard of Hart Island I was both appalled and excited in equal measure to find a place that I had never heard of and which seemed both illicit and intriguing. However, the more I read about Hart Island the more it became for me symptomatic of the anonymity of the Western world. We live and we die before being swept away in the morning like so much trash. The beautiful baby that is momentarily caressed in the arms of its mother is cast aside in later  years and is laid to rest like garbage. Hart island is a loathsome and horrid place and somewhere that I expected to find in the genocidal annals of European history rather than in the land of the free.

Melinda Hunt is leading the valiant campaign to re-integrate Hart Island into American consciousness and she leads the Hart island Project. Something you may like to read about


A visit to Hart Island 1978

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