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Accepted Paper:

One Million New Yorkers: Social relations at New York City’s potter’s field  

Author:

Sally Raudon (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Hart Island, New York City’s cemetery of last resort, is best known as a place for the forgotten: it’s physically isolated and public visits are forbidden. Yet, escalated by Covid, its burials illustrate intensely negotiated issues of identity and social ties between the living and the dead.

Paper long abstract:

For 150 years, Hart Island has been New York City’s burial site of last resort for anyone unclaimed or unidentified. Yet it does not accord with how most New Yorkers imagine a cemetery, with its massed unmemorialised burials by inmates, and visits strictly controlled by the Department of Correction. It is by definition excluded from everyday New York life. When Covid meant Hart Island was six times busier than usual in Spring 2020, images of its burials only sharpened public unease.

Disposal is an identity-making process, literally and symbolically fixing in place potential claims of kinship, religion, race, vocation and locality that may have fluctuated during life. Communal disposal is rarely neutral - Hart Island is exceptional as a massed burial ground in a stable democracy - but those buried there have been released from all other groups to be marked only as New Yorkers.

The bureaucratic processes of directing a body for burial on Hart Island - or preventing it, or authorising who might visit - illuminate which relationships and identities count between the living and the dead, and how these are made legible to the state. Covid has complicated these practices, particularly through negotiations around proposed temporary burials and long-term morguing in refrigerator trucks. Based on 15 months of fieldwork, I ask whether it is also the meaning and authority of the state itself, and the family, that becomes constituted in such moments - especially when the next of kin is ambiguous in identity or themselves disenfranchised.

Panel Mora04c
Life at the cemetery III