Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Dead and the Environment: Part 1, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us

Click for photo credit.
As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be spooktacular to introduce a new brief series on On the Brink that focuses on the dead and the environment. The first part of this three-part series is titled, The Island of a Million Spirits and the Impact of the Cemeteries Around Us.

Cemeteries have always impacted the environment in some way. Their very construction disrupts ecosystems and the concentration of decomposing bodies can cause public health problems. Indeed, the catacombs in Paris were constructed during the French Revolution because the cemeteries were full and the decomposing bodies crammed in poorly conceived graves, some of them missing heads, caused significant unease and health challenges for the multitudes that lived near the burial grounds. In cities like Paris, one has to find places to put the dead where they are not an inconvenience to the living. Sometimes, these choices have significant environmental and social impacts.

The creepy abandoned buildings on Hart Island, home to
New York's largest potter's field. Over 1 million people
 are buried here. Click for photo credit.
Let's take a look at the Hart Island Cemetery for a very scary example.

Hart Island is located in Long Island Sound just at it narrows to become the East River in New York City. It had many uses over the centuries. However, in the last two hundred years, it largely served the uses of the city of New York. It was a prison, a psychiatric ward, a drug clinic, and since the middle of the 1800's, New York's main potter's field. This is where New York buries the unclaimed dead. There are over one million people buried on this very small island in unmarked mass graves. Some notable New Yorkers were buried here. For example, the child actor and mid-century Disney star Bobby Dricoll, who is perhaps best known for his lead role in Treasure Island, was buried here after he died penniless in New York after a tumultuous adulthood. The first child to die from pediatric AIDS is buried here as well. What is notable about this grave is that it is the only one that is a single grave with a marker.

Perhaps the reason the cemetery is so frightening is that the government limits access to it. For years, the only ones who were allowed on the island were the prisoners and their overseers from Rikers Island prison who had jobs as grave diggers. Each borough of New York has a day that they can bring their dead to the island. Upon arrival, the prisoners put the modest coffins one on top of the other in trenches--one for adults and one for children. Recently, the city instituted a ferry service that brings family members to the cemetery once a month so that they can visit the final resting place of their loved ones.

The multiple uses of the island over time--from prison to Nike missile launch site--left many ruins on the island which add to the overall gloom of the place. It is not a place to venture to at night.

These hundreds of people enjoying a film screening in Bryant Park are
relaxing on the very place where hundreds of New Yorkers
before them were laid to rest. When it is their turn, where will these
New Yorkers find their final resting place? What will that place be
like 200 years later? Click for photo credit.
But Hart Island isn't the only potter's field in the city. Perhaps the most surprising cemetery in the city is the one that was located at today's Bryant Park. This lovely park was once the home to the city's main burial ground for the indigent. In 1853, when the city was looking for a place to hold an international exposition and fair called the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, it built a fancy crystal palace on the site of the cemetery. Perhaps the spirits were unhappy with all of the disturbance because the crystal palace burned down during an exhibition in 1858. It has been a park since that time. Yet, the burial ground is long gone. An extension of the New York Public Library now sits under the park where the dead once rested. Many of New York's most notable parks, particularly Union Square and Washington Square parks were once cemeteries. Some of the dead are still there.

A headstone in Trinity Church Cemetery in lower Manhattan. Why
did this very old cemetery survive centuries while other New York
cemeteries are now parks? Click for photo credit.
The use of space for cemeteries and how they are managed is certainly a contested issue. In the case of the Hart Island cemetery it was difficult to find information about who was buried there over the long span of time it operated (it is still an active cemetery). Records were destroyed in a fire and few care to maintain records of potter's fields. Compare this to some more notable cemeteries in the region where records are meticulously maintained and where one can get informative tours that showcase the resting place of famous New Yorkers.

Regardless of how cemeteries are managed, space is needed for the dead. How are cemeteries managed in your community? What impact do they have on the environment? How has cemetery management and use changed over time in your region? How are they integrated into the built landscape of your community? How have cemeteries been repurposed?

None of us get out of this world alive. But how will we impact it when we are gone?

In the second essay in this three-part series, I tackle the haunting problem of how the dead pollute our environment in a post titled, Arsenic and Cold Place: How the Dead Come Back to Kill Us.

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