Hart Island, a nondescript island just northeast of City Island in the Bronx, is home to New York City Potter’s Field. It has an interesting history, as it has been used in the past as a Union Civil War prison camp, a tuberculosis sanatorium, reform school, psychiatric institution, drug rehabilitation center and a Nike missile base. Today it is the burial site of over one million indigent or unclaimed New Yorker’s. Riker’s Island prison inmates conduct the mass burials and are paid fifty cents an hour for their labors. The dead are placed in plain, pine boxes and are buried in mass graves which are basically unmarked trenches.
This island has always held a morbid fascination for me. Having grown up in the Bronx, I knew it well. I always wondered, how can someone die without family or friends to care for them? A friend and I decided one day that we were going to make a pilgrimage to the island which was, at the time, off limits to visitors. So with a six pack of beer in hand, we rented a rickety row boat and began our adventure. We didn’t get far because the currents of Long Island Sound are strong and we were barely staying afloat. Our hopes were dashed, we never made it onto the island.
The New York City Department of Transportation runs a ferry from City Island to Hart Island several times a week to shuttle the inmates and the deceased to their destination. A plain box truck will deliver the dead to the pier, as plain as plain can be.
I was inspired to write a short poem about this ferry, named the Michael Cosgrove after a former New York City Dock Commissioner:
The Michael Cosgrove
Tied to the pier, awash in the Sound
He patiently waits for the next trip ’round
His cargo is coming from boroughs afar
In plain pine boxes, stacked neat, not ajar
The ferryman heaves to, and off they do go
Across the water to a place we won’t know
Where peace will come to those nameless few
Who were lost in this life, and concern was not due.