A medical examiner's truck returning from Hart Island after having brought bodies for burial.

A medical examiner's truck returning from Hart Island after having brought bodies for burial.

Hart Island is New York City’s potter’s field. For most of its nearly 150 year history, the island has been nearly impossible for mourners to visit because it is run by the NYC Dept. of Correction, which treats it like a prison site. Picture the Homeless, an activist organization founded and led by homeless New Yorkers, headed a successful campaign to pressure the DOC to open access to the island for memorial services. This is an excerpt from an interview with William Burnett, one of the leaders of the campaign. Interviewer and editor: Leyla Vural


The Whole Island is a Cemetery

A lot of the general public don’t know Hart Island exists. It’s an island in the Long Island Sound. Unless you have a reason to know, people don’t go through life trying to figure out, “I wonder where we bury the poor people?”

Originally when folks at Picture the Homeless were talking to me about potter’s field, I wasn’t interested in that conversation because my thinking was, we have homeless people who are still living and I want to be focused on housing for the living.

And then one of our cofounders, Lewis Haggins, passed away and the medical personnel had lost all of his identity, so he was buried on Hart Island. When we found out, folks from Picture the Homeless obviously wanted to go to Hart Island; they found they couldn’t. There’s a real problem with the island being under the control of the Department of Correction. It’s an insult to the people who are buried there – it’s like the jail cemetery – and it’s a barrier. Folks wanted to know, why can’t we go over and have closure? This is somebody that we were fighting in the trenches with. You develop a tight bond. I felt I would be almost inhuman if I didn’t respond.

In one of the early campaign meetings, while we were talking about potter’s field, you had these people from different faiths – like Charlie is a Baptist and Mohamed is Muslim – talking about how they come at the question from their different faith perspectives about how you depose people and what kind of dignity people deserve. And I remember I was sitting at the table and I’m looking at everybody and I said, “Listen, how we depose people and whether people have access for closure, these are pastoral questions, so where the fuck are the pastors?” And I love saying it that way.

So we began to do the work of reaching out to see if we could find pastors. And we did. We developed a pretty big group of faith allies to come back us up. When we had our first meeting with the deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction, which has jurisdiction over Hart Island, we were in that meeting with a lot of faith leaders standing with us, which made it very difficult for the deputy commissioner to say no.

We ended up developing kind of a parallel group. It was called the Interfaith Friends of Potter’s Field, which consisted of the faith leaders and the Picture the Homeless members who were working together to both promote access to potter’s field, but also to provide clergy for the bimonthly memorial services at potter’s field [which the City finally agreed to]. Our first memorial service was for Lewis Haggins. The department actually built this little chapel gazebo for us, surrounded by a picket fence, a garden.

What stands out about the memorial services is how emotional they are. Because you go onto that island, I don’t care how many times you go onto the island, you say you’re not going to get emotional, but when you get to the island, it seems like the further away from the water you are, the further inland on the island you are, I don’t know, something happens. You almost feel the presence of the people that are buried there. The whole island is a cemetery, and it’s overwhelming.

It’s amazing when we talk about homeless people, we talk about them as if they’re not human beings. Part of me begins to think that maybe that collective human spirit is relevant in that case. Here you have thousands of people who were effectively separated from society, many of them on the outskirts of society while they were living, because they were poor. And then they are hidden away on Hart Island and it almost seems like they’re forgotten. And if you were superstitious you might think they’re calling out, “Remember me.” That makes me sound like I’m superstitious, but it feels like that.

To be honest with you, I want to be buried on potter's field. We worked so hard to make sure that folks there are remembered. So I want to go there and have them tell me what they think about that work. It's almost, we were in solidarity in life, let's be in solidarity in death, too. "You see I remembered you. What do you think?"

(Note: The July 2015 settlement in a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the City of New York regarding access to Hart Island now allows family members to visit the burial sites of loved ones on the island. Friends have no such right, which means that most homeless people are still limited to the gazebo.)