The plain wooden coffins are lowered, one by one, from the back of a morgue truck into the hands of waiting inmates, men standing in a pre-dug trench already filled with other bodies on a small, narrow strip of land off the coast of the Bronx. The only other people on the island – beside the inmates and the dead – are armed Department of Correction officers, overseeing this New York City burial as the rest of the nation’s largest metropolis – almost wholly unaware this place exists – get ready for work.
This is just a regular Thursday on Hart Island, essentially the city’s potter’s field – though not all who end up here, it turns out, are destitute or unknown. The bodies are collected from the city morgues several times a week, ferried to a dock at the end of a residential street by a truck driver who alternately naps and drinks Dunkin Donut’s coffee as he awaits the arrival of inmates from Rikers Island. Then the morgue truck and the inmates take a boat across the Long Island Sound, disembarking to drive along unpaved roads to open grave sites. Trenches ten feet deep are left open, week after week, until they’re filled with 150 adult coffins, stacked three high, or 1,000 tiny pine boxes holding babies. Once the trenches are filled, the graves are covered in and eventually marked with nothing more than a stark white stake. The dead, on Hart Island, are nameless. It’s the largest mass burial site in America.
Hart Island was purchased by New York City nearly 150 years ago, and its use as a potter's field began the following year; the Department of Correction has been in charge of island burials for much of that time. New York residents being interred today by inmates earning 50 cents an hour join more than one million city residents who represent snapshots of the city’s history, from Civil War veterans to casualties of 1960s drug abuse – including child star Bobby Driscoll – to early victims of the AIDS crisis, buried 14-feet deep amidst fear and confusion about the deadly virus.
The island itself has served a range of functions, hosting at different stages a workhouse, a tuberculosis hospital, an asylum, even a Nike missile installation during the Cold War. The last occupied structure, a rehab center, closed in the 1970s, and the abandoned buildings are now crumbling and filled with rubble. Vandalism by adventure seekers – who flout the law and take their own boats or dinghies to the island – has been a consistent problem over the years.
Hart Island, off the coast of the New York City borough of the Bronx, is reached by ferry from City Island; here, a ferry carries inmates from Rikers Island on a trip to bury the city's dead
Once the inmate bus and morgue trucks leave the ferry dock, they travel past abandoned buildings on the island - which has housed everything from a rehab center to a hospital during its history - as well as past white markers denoting mass graves
Inmates, accompanied by armed Department of Correction officers, unload coffins from the morgue truck and transfer them into pre-dug trenches, which are left open until they are filled with 150 adults or 1,000 babies
The inmates assisting in Hart Island burials are paid 50 cents an hour for their work; many New Yorkers have no idea that the island serves as the city's burial site or that prisoners bury the city's dead
Vandalism has not been uncommon on Hart Island over the years, though - as property run by the Department of Correction - it is technically closed to the public and even relatives of the dead can only visit at certain times
It’s arguably easier for vandals to visit the island than it is for relatives of the people who are buried there. Unlike cities such as Los Angeles, which cremates its dead and holds an annual commemoration ceremony in the cemetery, New York buries its residents in a place that’s off limits to the public. For years, even the mothers of infants buried on Hart Island were denied permission to visit. But a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) lawsuit in 2014 paved the way for relatives to pay their respects on the island once a month on a designated day, allowing 50 people per visit – a number that has since been increased to 70. They’re required to register beforehand, relinquish phones and cameras and sign a waiver warning that any trips are taken at their own risk – absolving the DOC of ‘exposure to dangerous chemicals, wild animals, collapsed building structures, spikes or pikes in the ground, or large or small holes.’
On one gloomy Saturday morning, DailyMail.com joined such relatives for the journey, invited by the great-great-great grandson of a man buried on Hart Island. The quiet group that gathered for the trip across the water was diverse: a 31-year-old Chinese hairdresser clutching a bouquet of flowers mourning his recently-deceased father; an elderly, flame-haired mother and her adult son, looking to pay respects to her own mother who died young; a Hispanic father from the Bronx who lost his baby 25 years ago and only recently discovered his child’s burial site.
There were no trenches being dug or filled on this weekend morning, and the relatives – all complete strangers beforehand – were accompanied the entire time by armed guards. When their visit was nearing an end, a guard offered to take a group picture – and, awkwardly, those assembled stood together, posing and then waiting their turn to grab a copy of the Polaroid before making the journey back.
Canadian artist Melinda Hunt first visited the island for a photography project three decades ago and became dedicated to identifying the people buried there and advocating for change at the burial site; this photo shows an adult mass grave in 1992
MJ Adams, who gave birth to a stillborn boy name Juan Carlos Gabard, spent 20 years trying to find the location of her son's grave after being told he would be 'buried with other babies'
They were also accompanied by frequent visitor Melinda Hunt, who has dedicated countless hours of her time to Hart Island, the people buried there and their loved ones. Ms Hunt, an artist, first became interested in the island 30 years ago, when she visited the site for a photography project – and she has been passionate about it ever since, creating the nonprofit Hart Island project, which features an interactive map and listings of people buried on Hart Island since 1980. The website includes a clock for each person measuring the period of time they have been buried in anonymity until someone adds a story or image to memorialize their life.
Traveling Cloud Museum: Memorial to the Hart Island dead
The Traveling Cloud Museum is an interactive effort to remove from anonymity the people buried on Hart Island, offering relatives, friends or simply members of the public an opportunity to tell their stories and memorialize them.
It was the brainchild of artist Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, who has spent decades raising awareness about Hart Island and advocating on behalf of the people buried there and their families.
While the Department of Correction offers a database of Hart Island burials, The Traveling Cloud Museum lists each person’s name in chronological order, along with a ticking clock – which only stops after someone has posted a story or photo about the person’s life. The time they’ve remained or were anonymous – whether four weeks or four years – remains beside their name.
Stories have poured in from everyone from children to neighbors of the Hart Island dead – as well as strangers who simply write ‘God bless you.’
The museum includes the person's name, date of death, date of burial, and plot number, as well as an interactive map of the Hart Island grave sites.
Ms Hunt is visibly saddened by that anonymity and the fact that many New Yorkers have no idea that their loved ones are buried in mass graves on Hart Island – particularly mothers who lose their babies and, for whatever reasons, consent to city burial, unaware their infants will end up in trenches of 1,000 on an island with restricted access.
Her dedicated efforts played a huge part in the NYCLU lawsuit which partially opened the island to family members, albeit on such a limited basis. Soft-spoken but dogged, Ms Hunt is fighting for Hart Island to be made public and advocating for control to be transferred from the DOC to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The island has been plagued by erosion and exposed bones; a 2013 report from New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner assessed the shoreline of the northern portion of the island and found human remains ‘eroding from the cliff banks in numerous locations.’ The bones, the report found, belonged to numerous individuals and were observed on the shoreline and along the cliff bank, while at least two exposed burials were observed actively eroding.
The members of the OCME Forensic Anthropology Unit also came upon one nearly complete cranium with distinctive dental work, including fillings and gold crowns. The remains have since been gathered and reburied and were plentiful enough to necessitate an adult coffin. Indicative of the level of deterioration, Hart Island was awarded more than $13.2million after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy for repair and restoration and hazard mitigation work to its seawalls and shoreline.
DOC spokesman Peter Thorne told DailyMail.com: 'The Department of Correction has administered the city cemetery on Hart Island for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility,' pointing out that the 'expanded visitation capacity for family members in a manner consistent with visitor security and safety concerns.'
And as debate rages about the management of the island and its graves – and maintenance work continues – Ms Hunt hears daily from families trying to find their loved ones; countless people have located their relatives through the Hart Island project website. Some have chosen to exhume their loved ones; others have chosen to leave them at rest on the island; for others, it’s not even possible to find the graves given the amount of time that has passed.
Now, family members share with DailyMail.com the stories of their loved ones’ lives, how they came to be buried on Hart Island… and how they eventually found out they were there.
CAROL ANN MORGAN AND JOE CANONICO: Siblings who doted on each other and found resting places nearby - albeit on Hart Island - unbeknownst to their extended family
Carol Ann Morgan was always flawlessly turned out for family occasions, dressed up with her mother, Ida, as they visited with relatives in Brooklyn. Born in 1948, Carol Ann had Down Syndrome, but her mother was determined not to give in to norms of the time and put her in an institution or hide her away; instead, Carol Ann lived at home and enjoyed a happy family life.
‘At that time, you know, if you had a Down Syndrome child, they just would take it or say put it in an institution – and my aunt refused to do that,’ says Marguerite Vigliante, whose father was Carol Ann’s first cousin. ‘Carol Ann grew up living with her until my aunt died, which was in the 1990s.
‘She was treated just normally; she was very beautiful. She couldn’t really go out on her own, so she lived with my aunt. She just had a beautiful personality. She came to all family events; my aunt always dressed her up. They’d come out with their mink coats and stuff. She had a very incredible memory; she could remember anything. Every week she would memorize the TV guide. Every week you’d just call up and say, “What’s on TV Wednesday at six o’clock?” Boom – she’d know immediately.
‘She used to do the Abbot and Costello routine, the baseball routine Who’s on First. She knew that by heart; she would just recite it for you. She was just a beautiful little personality.’
Carol Ann was doted on by her older half-brother, Joe Canonico, from her mother’s first marriage. When Ida died, Joe and his girlfriend took over care of Carol Ann, but the extended family saw her less and less.
Joe worked in television but was always a bit of a mystery to his relatives, and Marguerite admits that he ‘got into some kind of issues.’
Carol Ann Morgan, center, is remembered by her cousin, Brooklyn resident Marguerite Vigliante, as a 'beautiful little personality' who moved in with her brother following her mother's death
Extended family lost track of Carol Ann, fourth from left, following her brother's death; they thought she had been living with his girlfriend but then learned she had died in an institution in 2008 and was buried on Hart Island
Carol Ann's older brother Joe, pictured as a child in Brooklyn, was also buried on Hart Island following his death in 2003
‘We wouldn’t see him for a while, then he would show up. He was involved in a lot of shady things. He would show up sometimes at 10 o’clock at night and he’d bring my father cigars and wine; he would just come with presents and things and then he’d disappear again,’ she says.
When Joe died in 2003 at the age of 69, nobody claimed his body, despite the fact he had an ex-wife and children, as well as a girlfriend.
‘We didn’t know what to do, because we weren’t really next of kin – so nobody claimed the body,’ says Marguerite. ‘We don’t know what happened.’
They didn’t know where the burial was, but they still thought his girlfriend was taking care of Carol Ann – until the family realized they hadn’t had contact with the woman or Carol Ann in some time.
Marguerite became curious a few years ago and began trying to find her first cousins once removed; she knew there was a city burial site and took a chance, coming upon the Hart Island database. She found out Carol Ann had died in 2008, at the age of 60, and been buried in New York’s potter’s field. The place of death listed was Brookhaven Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, and Marguerite believes Carol Ann spent her last years in at least one institution.
‘It’s really sad, because she just had a really good life, and my aunt was so adamant about not sending her to an institution – and then she ended up in an institution,’ she says.
Once she tracked Carol Ann to Hart Island, she suspected that Joe might have ended up there, too – and she was right. He died in April 2003 – and he’s also buried on the island.
No one is exactly sure of the route either sibling took before ending up there – and Marguerite, like so many, was totally unfamiliar with the name Hart Island before her search for her cousins.
‘I hadn’t heard anything,’ says the lifelong Brooklyn resident. ‘Everybody sort of knows there’s like a potter’s field someplace, so we knew there was a place that was basically a potter’s field, but I never knew where it was or it had a name or anything. I just assumed it was somewhere in the city or somewhere in the state. I had no idea; I had no preconceived thoughts.’
Brooklyn woman Marguerite Vigliante says that, before she found out her cousins were buried on Hart Island, she hadno idea that it functioned as the city's potter's field
She says that, while it saddens her to think of her cousins’ final years – especially those of Carol Ann – it gives her some comfort to think that they’re buried in the same cemetery. And the ability to write their stories in the Hart Island Traveling Cloud museum also gave her a tiny bit of closure, which she feel extends to other families in similar situations with relatives on Hart Island.
‘The online thing, it was very sort of satisfying to be able to actually be able to write something about both of them,’ says Marguerite, who added her cousins’ stories to the cloud. ‘And have a place to go, at least, even though it’s online. It’s like you have a place to go to sort of make a connection.’
She’s considered trying to visit Hart Island, but the logistics have so far deterred her.
‘I’ve thought about it; my mother could not make that kind of trip, she’s 91,’ Marguerite says. ‘It seems a little daunting ... it’s not easy to do.’
She says she’s grateful to Melinda Hunt, as well, for all the research she’d done into Hart Island and for connecting so many families with relatives of whom they’d lost track.
‘I think she’s doing a great job; I think it’s amazing, to me, that as one person, she has taken this on,’ Marguerite says. ‘It seems like almost a solo project.’
BABY JUAN CARLOS GABARD: The beloved stillborn son of a mother who spent 20 years searching for his grave - only to find that visitation was not allowed
The nightmare for MJ Adams began on August 20, 1995 with five words that every pregnant woman dreads hearing: ‘We can’t find a heartbeat.’
She was nine months pregnant and past her due date, and a scan a few weeks beforehand had revealed no problems with her baby – yet here she was with her husband at St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, staring at the medical team in disbelief, absolutely devastated to learn that her baby would be stillborn. Later that day she naturally delivered her son, Juan Carlos, and agreed to an autopsy in the hopes of discovering what led to his death; in their grief, the financially struggling couple also consented to a city burial for Juan Carlos after being told that he would be laid to rest amongst other babies.
The words ‘Hart Island’ were never mentioned, MJ says, nor was she informed that she would be unable to freely visit her son’s grave.
MJ was, however, allowed to choose an outfit for her son’s burial, and she lovingly selected clothes she had received at her baby shower. It gave her peace of mind to know that she dressed her son for his final resting place, but even that dream would be shattered when she returned to the hospital for her six-week checkup and the autopsy results.
‘It was just awful,’ she says. ‘I went and sat in that same room with all these other women that were pregnant. It’s really hard. And when they called my name, they put me in this room, and I’m just sobbing … it’s just so weird. And then she came in and she’s like, “Oh my God, I don’t even know how to tell you this … they buried your baby without the autopsy.”’
She was left not only with no answers about the cause of her baby’s death, but also with doubts about whether he was dressed in her lovingly-chosen ensemble.
Distraught, she wrote a letter to the hospital president on October 10, 1995, saying: ‘You can’t begin to imagine how hurt and angry I felt. To have been waiting for nothing! This loss is the second for my husband (he had lost a baby in the eight month in a previous marriage) and was the main reason we went ahead with the autopsy. I know that an autopsy of a stillborn may or maynot (sic) reveal anything but it could at least rule out some things. We would of (sic) liked to have some information since we plan on having another baby in the future.
‘What is even more upsetting is that I went to the hospital a week after my delivery to give clothes for my baby to be buried in. This mental image of my baby in clothes that I especially had chosen has helped me tremendously get through the many bad days that I have experienced and now that memory has been destroyed since all I can think of is if the hospital even bothered to perform this task or that my baby was possibly already buried by the time I even dropped off the clothes.’
The hospital apologized and offered counseling and medical evaluations, but MJ and her husband were further horrified by the response they got when they broached the subject of exhumation. She says they were basically told: ‘We can’t dig your baby up, because if we dig your baby up, we’re going to have to dig up hundreds of other babies, and you wouldn’t want that.’
‘What a horrible image,’ she says. ‘It never was once mentioned that I would never ever be able to go visit that place.’
It would be nearly 20 years before MJ found out that all of this could have been easily prevented; records eventually proved that, while she was grieving and complaining to the hospital, Juan Carlos was not actually buried until October 26, 1995. An autopsy still could have been carried out, and she could have ensured he was buried in the clothes she chose, if there had been proper monitoring of his body and burial and notification.
MJ Adams, who now works as a chef in South Dakota, was nine months pregnant and past her due date when she was told doctors could no longer find a heartbeat; she consented to burial on Hart Island without realizing she would not be allowed to freely visit her son's grave
MJ spent 20 years trying to discover the exact location of the resting place of her son, who she named Juan Carlos Gabard; the ferry that takes inmates and visitors - separately - to Hart Island leaves from the end of this residential street
The efforts of Melinda Hunt, who started the nonprofit Hart Island Project, eventually led to the identification of the plot in which Juan Carlos was buried on Hart Island
MJ still cherishes the sonogram of her son, left, but finds the hurdles to vising his grave - registration, a ferry trip and Department of Correction chaperones - to be daunting
MJ finally got the chance to visit her son's grave in 2014; she was one of the first relatives to do so since the island was closed to the public in the 1970s. Because she was not allowed to take photos, she gathered some dirt from his gravesite, which she keeps displayed in her bedroom to feel close to him
She also spent nearly 20 years trying to discover the exact location of her son’s burial place. Traumatized after the still birth, she and her husband left New York, moving to her native South Dakota – and their efforts to get a death certificate over the phone, and even during a trip back to the city, yielded nothing. MJ wondered constantly about her son but had no idea where exactly he was; she was trying to keep a restaurant business afloat in South Dakota, however, and her marriage to Carlos disintegrated. While Juan Carlos was always in the back of her mind, she didn’t know how to go about locating his resting place.
All that changed on an ordinary Sunday in 2010, however, while she and her new husband, Walter, were reading the paper. Walter had made efforts to find her son’s grave site, to no avail, but on this fateful day MJ noticed a story in the local Rapid City paper about a burial island in New York City. She had a feeling this could be where Juan Carlos ended up; the article mentioned Melinda Hunt and her Hart Island Project, and they got in touch. Through painstaking research wading through handwritten records, Ms Hunt realized that MJ’s name had been misspelled – but eventually located the burial record.
MJ had the opportunity to visit Hart Island for the first time in 2014, one of the first relatives allowed to do so since the island was closed to the public in the 1970s. She describes the experience as ‘surreal.’
‘I had to sign this waiver; what was so weird about it was it was like: “We will not be responsible if you are bitten by a wild animal or if you fall into a hole.” I am like, where am I going? What wild animal? They just really did not want you. They would scare you. They did not want you to go to this place.”’
She was determined, however, after nearly two decades without visiting her son, her only child, and the DOC did try to sort out flowers for her to bring – though wires were crossed and her visit was delayed for an hour as a staffer was dispatched to pick them up (though the only plant he could source was a blooming cactus.)
The island was particularly unkempt following damage from Hurricane Sandy, but MJ turned down an offer of a van ride in favor of walking to her baby’s gravesite, accompanied the whole time. She stayed for about 20 minutes at Juan Carlos’ gravesite, thinking, she says: ‘You didn’t even do an autopsy; maybe this isn’t even my baby. But you just have to hope that it is.’
‘Walter and I stood there for a little bit and said a prayer and we asked to have some space, because, again, it’s not like any cemetery visit; you have people watching you, there’s a gentleman in a van waiting for you, and you’re like, will I ever be back? Should I stay here an hour or two? They didn’t tell me there was any time limit.’
Describing the island, she says: ‘I don’t want to say soulless … but it’s just empty – which is how I kind of felt: empty. Which I always will be.’
She says: ‘I was kind of sad they wouldn’t let us take a picture, I don’t know why, and so I decided that I wanted some mementos. I didn’t know if they were going to take them, I thought, please don’t. I just took a piece of driftwood and rock.’
Melinda had realized MJ might want to gather some earth from her baby’s gravesite and thoughtfully brought along a jar, which MJ filled with soil.
‘I actually had some grass, too, and then I got the driftwood and rock, so I have it in my bedroom – so I can at least feel like I have a piece of something from Hart Island.’
She compares the ferry crossing from the island to the River Styx and says: ‘It was a windy day; we walked back and took the ferry boat back. It’s not like a real visit, really. As my husband said, he felt like … it’s a prison for dead people. Any cemetery in America you can walk into, pretty much, and visit, but Hart Island, you can’t. It’s just ridiculous.’
She believes the island should not be run by the DOC and instead should become a park; while she hasn’t been back since that haunting trip, she’d like to return, alone, without supervision, and spend some peaceful time reflecting and looking at the water.
‘If I had all the facts, if I had known that he was going to be buried in a place with thousands of other babies in just a pine box with just a number on it, and that I would never be able to go there and visit, and prisoners were burying the bodies … it just sounds like a horror movie,’ she says.
‘In a way, I feel like a bad …’ her voice chokes up. ‘You think if you couldn’t be a mother, well, now you’re a bad mother, in a way. And I know I’m not, but …there’s so many broken systems in the world, and this is definitely a broken system.’
Relatives visiting the island have to sign a waiver warning that any trips are taken at their own risk – absolving the Department of Correction of ‘exposure to dangerous chemicals, wild animals, collapsed building structures, spikes or pikes in the ground, or large or small holes’
A 2013 report from New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner assessed the shoreline of the northern portion of the island and found human remains ‘eroding from the cliff banks in numerous locations;’ this photo shows exposed bone that was visible in 1992
Describing the island - which hosts this Department of Correction compound - MJ Adams says: ‘I don’t want to say soulless … but it’s just empty – which is how I kind of felt: empty. Which I always will be’
OCTAVIA AND LORD BALTIMORE KINARD: The church-going Brooklyn grandparents killed in a house fire and given a city burial as their grandson fought for his life
Grandparents Octavia and Lord Baltimore Kinard were stalwarts of their Brooklyn community, devoting their lives to family and church – an arena in which Octavia, 71, particularly excelled. She was hugely active in the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, working tirelessly with the youth and the ushers, encouraging her grandson, O’Justin, to join the program – inspiring him to eventually become Junior Usher State President for New York.
‘She took initiative; she was always the one cooking meals, serving meals,’ says college student O’Justin, now 21. ‘She loved doing soup kitchens and things like that.’
He says she was also the New York States supervisor for the young adult program at the Church Ushers Association, ‘taking care of the trips and finding us transportation, things like that.’
Both Octavia and Lord moved from South Carolina to New York when they were young; she initially wanted to be a scientist, but ‘life happens,’ says her daughter Carrie, 49 – and Octavia pursued domestic and family life instead, marrying Lord, whom she knew from home and reconnected with at a party, and giving birth to Carrie and her brother, Malcolm.
‘Mom never did go back to school,’ says Carrie, who didn’t know for years about her mother’s scientific ambition. ‘I didn’t know about this thing, how she felt, until way later on. If she had told me this earlier in life, I think I would’ve pushed her to take a class now and then – but she was having fun in her life, she loved ushering.’
She adds: ‘She was always real smart, real creative.’
Lord Baltimore worked for a company making chemicals and dyes before jobs were cut and he found new employment with Domino Sugar; he loved music and was the singer of the family, along with Carrie, she and O’Justin explain.
‘Daddy was more of a “throw some piece of meat on the barbeque, grill outside, get a couple of beers, play some Sam Cook, either R&B or soul or gospel, gather everybody round"' type of man, Carrie tells DailyMail.com. ‘We’d all start singing; Dad was good with that. That could be every day of Dad’s life… Dad loved to party, but he could party at home. He didn’t have to be at a club or at a bar; he could be right in the house, sitting in the kitchen, radio playing, laughing joking.’
O’Justin grew up in the house with his mother and grandparents and particularly looked up to Lord.
‘I used to tell him all the time that he was the main man in my life,’ O’Justin says fondly. ‘He loved to crack jokes, but he was so stern and so serious. He used to pick me up; I went to school about five blocks from the house … and on Fridays, I got out at 1.30, and he’d always be right there to pick me up every Friday. That was great.’
O’Justin bonded not only through ushering with his grandmother, but also through their trips through their Brooklyn neighborhood for treats such as ice cream. His mother laughs about how they’d disappear on their little journeys; the entire family were thick as thieves, and Carrie and O’Justin laugh about Octavia’s small gambling hobby.
‘She played the penny and nickel machines,’ says Carrie. ‘Any casino she found, that’s what she found: the penny and nickel machines – and sat there back in the day pulling a lever; now it’s pressing a button.’
Octavia would never overplay, however, saving enough for food and then the trip home after having her fun with the innocent slots.
Carrie explains how her mother would reason: ‘I’m down to my last $25; they’ve got a seafood restaurant down there. I’m going to get something to eat and then I’m going for the bus.’
O'Justin Kinard and his mother, Carrie, are mourning the loss of her parents Octavia and Lord Baltimore Kinard, who died in a November 2015 fire at the family's home in Brooklyn
Carrie, right, recalls the love her father, Lord, (left) had for singing; he had relocated as a young man to New York from South Carolina and spent years working for Domino Sugar to support his wife and two children
Octavia Kinard was very active in the ushering program at her church; her daughter consented to her parents' burial on Hart Island following their tragic death because she was at her son's side as he fought for his life after suffering severe burns in the house fire
Carrie and O’Justin enjoy sharing the happy memories they have of Octavia and Lord, but the grief is evident even through their laughter; the grandparents were killed in November 2015 in a fire at the family home which also left O’Justin with third degree burns over nearly 50 percent of his body but thankfully left Carrie relatively unharmed. It was during the ensuing weeks – as O’Justin recovered in a burn unit, with his distraught mother at his side – that Octavia and Lord would end up on Hart Island.
Carrie takes a moment to compose herself before explaining the painful period that followed the devastating fire.
‘I didn’t want to make any funeral arrangements without my son,’ she says. ‘Everyone was against that, very against it; I didn’t care. My brother came from Florida and we talked; he was at the hospital with my son, O’Justin was in the bed. I said, “Listen. We’re broke.” There was no insurance, there was no life insurance, there was literally nothing in my pockets.’
Some church donations were coming in for the family, but Carrie – beside herself – decided: ‘I’m not doing anything for Mom or Dad until the doctor says to me: “Your son can leave here.”’
As time continued to pass, a woman from the Medical Examiner’s office explained to Carrie about a city burial on Hart Island; a lifelong Brooklynite, Carrie had never heard of it.
‘She gave me plenty of time,’ she says. ‘I spoke to our pastor, and he said whenever I was ready, he would have a service at his church, bodies or no bodies. I said, “What bodies? I know where they are.”’
Her thinking was, Carrie explains, ‘Mom and Dad are still in the house, so what am I burying?’
So Carrie told the Medical Examiner’s office that Hart Island was fine with her.
‘She said, “Anytime you want any information on it, just call me back,”’ Carrie says. ‘I didn’t get into a whole lot of detail, because, again, my son was fighting for his life. To me, there was nothing I could do about that; I’m focusing on my son.
‘That’s how they got there, basically, because what other choices did I have? I’m sure my family don’t agree, but my brother, my son and myself made the decision. Everybody else, I don’t care.’
As O’Justin healed, he and Carrie would visit the burnt-out family home to pay their respects to Octavia and Lord.
‘Originally he said, “Mom, I don’t have nothing to go visit,”’ Carrie says of her son. ‘I said, “You can always go by the house.” So that’s what he used to do. He used to come over here, take pictures, post on Instagram, Facebook, “Hey Grandma, Hey Grandpa.” That’s where we visit them.’
O’Justin only recently found out about Hart Island, and he was taken aback by stark pictures of the burial site online. But both he and Carrie hope to visit their loved ones soon in the Bronx.
‘Any day he says, “Ma, I want to go up there,” we’re going to go,’ Carrie says. ‘I’m going to figure it out.’
She believes that, like her, many native New Yorkers have no idea that the island exists – and more openness and information should surround the burial site. She was wholly unaware that inmates would be burying her parents.
‘Potter's Field, that’s all you ever hear about,’ she says.
EVELYN LETFUSS: The former UN interpreter who took her own life and wanted to donate her body to science - only to end up in a Hart Island grave
There is a nostalgic excitement in David Eber’s voice when he describes visiting the New York City apartment of his charismatic uncle, David Finkelstein, and his uncle’s girlfriend, Evelyn. Uncle David was a lawyer-turned-journalist; Evelyn spent years in the Austrian diplomatic corps and worked as a translator for the United Nations. The couple had met in Asia, and their New York apartment was always a welcoming hive of conversation, debate, camaraderie and food.
Mr Eber and his wife, Jessica, always stayed with the couple while visiting New York, and David – who also became a lawyer - looked up to his opinionated, worldly uncle and his big personality. Evelyn was quieter but fascinating, trying her hand at photography, writing and jewelry making in addition to her diplomatic skills – and the couple had a vast social network of interesting friends. They were childless, however, and after the 2005 death of Mr Eber’s mother, they asked him to become the executor of their wills, going over their assets and, surprisingly, showing him their marriage certificate – though Mr Finkelstein spent decades railing against the institution of marriage.
Mr Eber’s memories and descriptions are joyous and heartfelt, but everything changed in 2015. He and his wife planned a visit to the couple for Thanksgiving that year, but they received a shocking phone call a week beforehand; Evelyn had thrown herself from a balcony on the 20th floor of the couple’s building.
No one – not Mr Eber and his wife, not his uncle, not their wide circle of friends – had an inkling of what led her to take her own life at the age of 66.
Evelyn Letfuss, a native of Austria, led an international life and worked as a translator at the United Nations in New York before she took her own life in 2015
Evelyn, left, had wanted to donate her body to science but it was not eligible; her husband, David Eber, was so distraught that he consented to a city burial - and took his own life not long after
When the couple's nephew, David Eber, realized where Evelyn, right, had eventually been buried, he arranged an exhumation and scattered both her ashes and those of his uncle, left, in the Atlantic Ocean
‘We have spent so much time, and we’ve talked to so many people to try to figure out what happened,’ Mr Eber says. ‘Why it happened or what gave rise to it, I think will remain a mystery forever.
‘We’ve tried and tried and tried to figure that out; we’ve talked to all their friends who were also mystified … [there was] almost certainly something going on with her that no one really knew, which gets back to this idea that he was the open one and always talked about everything and there was always something a little not quite open about her.’
His uncle was left utterly heartbroken by her death, Mr Eber says sadly.
‘It was a complete shock, and David – who was always a very strong, rational person - he was devastated, absolutely devastated,’ he says. ‘He was 78.’
Both Mr Finkelstein and his wife had wanted their bodies to be donated to science, but her suicide made that impossible – and a grief-stricken Mr Finkelstein seemed unable to think clearly about the funeral practicalities.
‘This was really David’s decision; we thought that it was a decision he might want to make, that he needed to make, and in retrospect it was a mistake for us to have David make this decision, because he was so distraught,’ Mr Eber says. ‘He wanted nothing to do with anything, particularly with sort of sitting there and figuring out what to do with her body.’
He says the ‘passive solution was they’ll just take care of it and they’ll send the body to – I don’t think they used the word “Hart Island” – some city burial place.
‘The mistake was made, really, when we said, “David, what do you want to do?” And he kind of just said, whatever, city burial, and that was a mistake that we then did that – but that’s what he said and that’s what happened.’
Despite the intervention of friends and family, and their best efforts, Mr Finkelstein was so bereft that he, too, took his own life the following month. It was only when Mr Eber began to execute the will and try to obtain a death certificate for Evelyn that he realized, to his distress, where she had ended up.
‘Her friends wanted to know where she was, and we couldn’t tell them. It was uncomfortable, because we’re telling these people who cared a lot about her that she’s in the equivalent of potter’s field – and as respectful and kind as most people were to us, you couldn’t avoid a little, so to speak, body language in their emails saying, “That’s weird” or “How did that happen?”
‘People didn’t react well to that, and I certainly get it.’
His uncle’s body also could not be donated to science because of the time between his death and when his body was discovered, and they had him cremated – and soon made the decision to reunite him with his wife.
‘Meanwhile, Evelyn is buried in an unmarked grave, and A.) we needed to get the death certificate and B.) it just seemed kind of crazy,’ says Mr Eber.
‘Either no one told us or he didn’t think to ask about that, and it turned out shortly she was there,’ he says of Hart Island. ‘We realized that it was a terrible mistake, both as a practical matter and just as an emotional matter.
‘So we had her exhumed; she then was cremated.’
The family scattered both of their ashes in the Atlantic; the same way that Mr Finkelstein’s father, a fisherman, had been laid to rest.
Mr Eber says that, until his family faced these twin tragedies, he had been generally unaware of Hart Island – and certainly didn’t expect people like Evelyn to end up there.
‘What we didn’t realize … was how unusual it was in a situation like that,’ he says . ‘My uncle had means; he was far from a pauper and … she was not an unknown person.’
JACK ALAGONA: The charismatic brother who succumbed to drug addiction after a decades-long struggle - and was buried on Hart Island by a system that never even notified his sister
Sally Alagona smiles down at pictures of her older brother spread across her dining room table in the New Jersey home she shares with her partner in a cookie-cutter-perfect retirement community. Jack smiles back in his First Holy Communion outfit in one photo; in another, he looks smart and handsome, his Navy uniform offsetting his inherited Sicilian features.
‘He was a ladies man,’ she says, laughing softly as she reveals that she learned later in life that some of her friends had secretly dated him. ‘They all wanted to baby him.’
But her recollections are tinged with a mixture of sadness, regret, guilt and helplessness – a combination all too familiar to families affected by addiction and substance abuse.
Jack died on June 6, 2014, and he was buried on Hart Island that September – but Sally only learned of his death the following month, when she tried to contact him for his birthday. She couldn’t reach him by phone, so she looked on his sparse Facebook page – only to see a post on his wall that read: ‘Rest in peace, John. We love you so much!’
With dread, she contacted the friend who posted the comment, and through a series of subsequent investigations with authorities she discovered that Jack had passed away from a drug overdose.
‘I called the police, and they referred me to the NY medical examiner’s office, and after many phone calls, I spoke with someone who was extremely helpful in the medical examiner’s office,’ Sally says. ‘And seemed genuinely upset with the fact that ... my brother’s body was found in his apartment or his room on June 6, and he was taken to the morgue and they claimed they did try [to track down family.]’
Her brother’s cause of death was acute drug intoxication from combined effects of cocaine, morphine, methadone, oxycontin and another drug.
New Jersey resident Sally Alagona holds the First Communion picture of her brother, Jack, who died on June 6, 2014 and was buried on Hart Island before anyone notified her of his death - despite the fact they had the same last name
Jack Alagona served in the Navy before he fell victim to drug addiction; his family tried for years to get him help but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful
She says of Hart Island: 'Even if I hadn't reunited him with my mom, I would never have left him there. Because for me, it was a sign of being a forgotten, lost soul'