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Accepted Paper:

‘Like a normal cemetery’: the problem of New York City’s Hart Island  
Sally Raudon (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Hart Island’s trench burials occur without ceremony. The public shock as Covid victims were buried here belied how it has operated largely unchanged for 150 years. I contrast bereaved relatives’ yearning for ‘normalcy’ with how NYC solves the problem of providing funerals of last resort.

Paper long abstract:

What troubles people about Hart Island, New York City’s public burial ground? When drone footage emerged of Covid causalities being buried by inmates in trenches, the images became a key symbol of authorities’ struggle to deal with the death toll. New Yorkers were shocked. Yet this was nothing different from what the City usually did, just faster and in greater numbers. Funerals were never possible here.

Sometimes those with relatives buried on Hart Island strived to secure a disinterment. Others made a peace with it, even when the burial had occurred without their knowledge, but longed to rectify the lack of funeral with other rituals. But the Department of Correction has historically restricted visits and prohibited memorialisation. As one relative told me, ‘I just want to be able to wake up and decide that today I’ll go visit my daughter. No planning, I’ll just go, like a normal cemetery.’ A Hart Island burial solves some political, economic and social problems of what to do with the dead, but it also creates new difficulties. As such, I use this case to analyse the ‘social tension often found between concern for the dead in general with anxiety over the dead in particular’ (Engelke 2019: 33). Who would it help if Hart Island’s cemetery became more normal – and what social problems might this illuminate?

Panel P179b
Afterlife counts: the economics and materiality of funerals and dealing with death [AGENET]
  Session 1 Wednesday 27 July, 2022, -