How Covid-19 Has Forced Us to Look at the Unthinkable

Credit...Photo illustration by Mike McQuade

A few weeks ago, videos surfaced on the internet showing what appeared to be mass burials in New York City. In aerial footage, captured by an Associated Press drone camera on April 9, workers wearing protective gear are seen arranging coffins in a wide, muddy trench. The process appears orderly, efficient and unsentimental. Laborers unload the coffins from forklifts and stack them in neat rows. They place plywood sheets on top of the piles; occasionally, they can be seen treading on the coffins. The bird’s-eye vantage point lends the scene a chilling impersonality. It is, simply, a worksite: When the burial crew shovels dark dirt over the plain wooden boxes, they do so with the unceremonious diligence of a street repair team scooping asphalt into a pothole.

The site of this grisly activity is Hart Island, a 101-acre strip that sits off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound. It is the home of New York’s potter’s field, the city’s cemetery for the indigent and anonymous — the homeless, those who cannot be identified, those whose families cannot afford to provide a burial. The videos emerged as the coronavirus outbreak ravaged New York, and after they circulated, officials confirmed what viewers suspected: The city had begun interring unclaimed bodies of Covid-19 victims in the potter’s field. “The pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us,” tweeted New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.

For more than a century and a half, Hart Island has been a dreadful destination, a place you don’t want to end up. In 1865, the Union Army established a Civil War prison camp there; three German prisoners of war were confined on the island during World War II. Disease has chased earlier generations to the island: It once held a tuberculosis sanitarium, and during a yellow-fever outbreak in 1870, it was used to quarantine the sick. Over the decades, Hart Island has been the site of city jails, an almshouse, an insane asylum for women, a “reformatory for vicious boys” and a drug rehabilitation facility. The structures that housed these institutions are now abandoned and ghostly — haunted houses that have been documented in online photo galleries by urban spelunkers.

But the island is most famous, or infamous, as a burial ground: the “mecca of New York City’s friendless dead,” as one turn-of-the-century chronicler, Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nichols, put it. An estimated one million bodies have been interred on the island. In recent years, some of these human remains have reappeared aboveground: Erosion of the Hart Island shoreline has caused bones to be disinterred and scattered along the beachfront.

Yet for all but a handful of New Yorkers, Hart Island doesn’t exist. It is both out of sight and out of mind, a necropolis within the metropolis, cut off from the living population geographically and psychically. The island has been uninhabited for decades, is almost entirely closed to the public and can be accessed only by ferries that periodically make the Stygian voyage from neighboring City Island to deliver the dead and transport the crews tasked with burying the bodies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust Hart Island into public view as never before. But it has also retaught a lesson our forebears learned, decades and centuries back. Along with terror, suffering and death, a plague brings a macabre logistical problem: lots of corpses that need to be disposed of. In New York, morgues and cemeteries have run out of room, facing what one city official called “the equivalent of an ongoing 9/11.” Similar crises have arisen around the world. In Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, the dead have been abandoned on street corners, and authorities have distributed cardboard coffins. Coffin makers in Spain have been unable to keep up with demand; the Italian Army was sent to crematories and churches where bodies had piled up. On the outskirts of Paris, the main hall of one of the world’s largest wholesale food markets has been converted into a makeshift morgue.

Most of us — those who do not work as undertakers or in the medical profession — are able to avoid the morbid nitty-gritty of death, the plain fact that human beings die and leave behind lifeless bodies. We may attend an open-casket funeral or witness a coffin being lowered into a grave. But these solemn rites impart dignity and meaning to death. It is the hasty and anonymous burial that is viewed in nearly all cultures as an indignity. The spectacle of bodies packed into a big open pit calls to mind the most frightful events in history: wars and genocides.

But the scenes captured by those hovering drone cameras are not extraordinary. The deeper shock of the Hart Island videos may be the realization that they reveal a workaday event. A mass burial on Hart Island is business as usual, a thing that happens all the time, every week. The city says that it has hired contract laborers to do this work during the corona­virus outbreak, but the job is normally performed by inmates from the prison on nearby Rikers Island, who are paid $1 an hour. Hart Island is the domain of the dispossessed, where the poorest and most marginalized citizens are laid to rest in unmarked graves by a work force drawn from the country’s second-largest jail system.

Now more New Yorkers, more Americans, are compelled to notice these margins — to confront the possibility that the great gaping chasm separating the fortunate from the wretched may open wide enough to swallow many, many more of us. We have learned that Covid-19 is not a great leveler, that it disproportionately impacts the most socially precarious. But a pandemic has the power to upend anyone’s world, to upset what many may subconsciously regard as the rightful order of things. We know the coronavirus can be the cause of unimaginable loneliness. We isolate ourselves to avoid infection. If we are infected, we must further self-isolate. And if things worsen, we may face the prospect of a solitary death, in a room with no loved ones present.

Then there is the ultimate tragic fate, which has befallen those Covid-19 victims whose remains have been shipped to an outpost in Long Island Sound. In his 1899 dispatch, Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nichols wrote, “What brings persons here, to lie in borrowed graves commingled with the ashes of convicts, prostitutes and the vilest human clay of darkest New York?” The question is crudely phrased, in the harsh language of a Victorian world whose brutalities we like to think we have left behind. But it distills a fear that hangs over New York, and the world at large, in 2020. Hart Island has always been there. The privilege to ignore its existence is another prerogative to which the current crisis is laying waste.