|Click for photo credit.|
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.
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.
|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.
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.