Do you know where your ancestors are buried? Are you sure?
Most of the relatives I was familiar with while growing up were buried among the string of cemeteries that grace the eastern hills of my home town of Council Bluffs, Iowa. They were scattered a bit, but fairly close nonetheless. In recent years, my techno-gadget-savvy brother identified each of the sites by its GPS coordinates (a good idea, by the way).
As my interest in long-departed relatives grew, I found that their remains were interred in more exotic (to me) locations. But, although research shows some of them buried in a specific Missouri cemetery, my father says that’s not exactly right. The cemetery, it seems, was moved to accommodate one of those man-made reservoirs that passes for a lake these days. Moving a cemetery is probably more common than you realize.
Then today I learned of New York City’s Hart Island. This Long Island Sound location in the Bronx has been home to a potter’s field since 1869. An estimated 800,000 of the city’s most anonymous and indigent residents have been laid to rest there over that nearly 140-year period. Managed by the city’s department of corrections, bodies are buried by inmates – three deep for adults, five deep for children.
Access to this desolate place is limited. Only people who can prove a relative is buried there can get in, no small feat considering that records are sketchy and inaccessible.
Enter Melinda Hunt, 49-year-old artist, who, after 10 years of trying, used the Freedom of Information Act to extract a list of some 50,000 who have been buried there since 1985. She plans to post them in an online database. She is also in pursuit of grant money in hopes of learning some of the stories behind the names.
"I'm trying to show a hidden part of American culture that I think is important, that I think is overlooked,” Hunt told the New York Times.
The lost history of these 800,000 souls is incalculable. We owe it to our own descendants to make certain our own family histories don’t slip away.
Hart Island photo courtesy of laurenbove.