NYC’s Hart Island & COVID-19 Burials: Supposed Controversy Continues

Today at NYC Mayor de Blasio’s daily press briefing, questions continued about COVID-19 victims and whether they were being buried wrongfully at Hart Island; or if there are plans to bury them at there. To which, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio responded, just as he has in the past week, by stating that they were not.

Now, the purpose of this write-up today is to help shed light and clarity upon a subject which shouldn’t be as controversial as some are making it out to be. Some concerns voiced centered on some of the following points to which I’ll provide my own quick response followed, to some extent, by those of the Mayor:

© Milo Hess / Taken August 2017 from onboard the retired NYFD fireboat John J. Harvey off the shoreline of Hart Island. Island is off limits.

  • Are unclaimed bodies being buried at Hart Island? Yes, as has been the case for decades now since the 1980s.
  • Has there been an increase recently in burials lately? One can only presume that the answer would be yes considering the massive uptick in deaths due to Novel Coronavirus.
    • One needs to also consider how the elderly constitute a large portion of those who’ve passed due to the disease. There are many above a certain age who live alone and without relatives and such. Some are abandoned by family and some simply have no one else left in their lives.
    • There are as well semi-loners like myself over the age of fifty and younger. With or without my a spouse in my life I could go weeks without contacting a relative, not that I have many left. Something which might raise an eye but not great concern. Merely because that’s the norm of one’s individual life.
    • Let us not forget about the homeless of which there are record numbers in our city.
    • See how this plays out? See how there could very well be a dramatic increase in burials on Hart Island?
  • Are Coronavirus victims among those being buried on the island? Why wouldn’t they be? If unclaimed, there’s no differentiation made between causes of death. Although, in the 1980s the AIDs epidemic bore its own share of mild controversy with those having passed due to the illness being buried separately from others out of fear of transmission. Something I’ll approach in another bit of writing. It’s a wonder though that no one’s brought up that particular concern. Not that I’m concerned but with they way things

Mayor de Blasio:

“So what we have seen is an increase in the number of people passing away overall. And what it means is there are more people who are passing away who just, we unfortunately we’ve seen this throughout our history, but it’s being made deeper by the fact that more people are passing away because of this disease.”

© Milo Hess / Taken August 2017 from onboard the retired NYFD fireboat John J. Harvey off the shoreline of Hart Island. Island is off limits.

“That there are people pass away and there is no family member, no loved one, no friend, no one who we can find, who our Office of Medical Examiner can find who has a connection to that person and is going to take responsibility for their burial. So this is something that has existed for generations in this city. When that is the case, the City of New York steps up and says, okay, that person will be buried at Hart Island. But if a family member comes later or a loved one comes later, that individual, that body can be returned to that loved one. So because there’s just been unfortunately more people passing away, including those who are not claimed by any family. That’s what’s been happening at Hart Island.”

Another question posed to the Mayor today raised concern with the time that a loved one would have to be able to claim a body that’s been sent to Hart Island. The reporter cited what they’d found on the Office of the Medical Examiner website. We checked the site and found the following:

City Burial

OCME’s responsibility as the City mortuary includes caring for all remains in our custody with dignity and respect. There may be times in this work when remains are unidentified and/or unclaimed.

As we aim to accommodate the many New Yorkers who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) will provide temporary storage of a decedent for up to 14 days. We continue to work with families to accommodate their needs during this difficult time.

Mayor:

“…any individual who, even if they individually are temporarily buried, they can be brought back to their family member. It’s as simple as that. So we will, that’s open-ended, Erin. That’s – it’s anytime the family shows up after this crisis, we will work with them and we will support them.”

“…if no one has claimed them, no one has communicated, no one can be found in any way, shape or form, they will be very temporarily awaiting to hopefully the day when we can find the family members or loved ones. If family members and loved ones communicate, even if they can’t come now that will be handled differently.”

Earlier in the day, Freddi Goldstein (Press Secretary for Mayor de Blasio) tweeted the following:

“We have not buried any bodies of claimed individuals on Hart Island, nor do we believe we will have to. Individuals for whom we cannot identify any loved ones for an extended period of time will be buried on Hart Island, as has been done for decades.”

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To close, this post is not about siding with the Mayor or anyone else for that matter. Yes, it’s important to raise questions but by the same token, it pays to keep a hold of common sense and not lose one’s head…’and pay attention to that which the mayor’s repeated again and again. Let’s focus on saving lives.

‘and if there’s to be concern over what’s right, what’s wrong…what’s cruel and what’s moral, then maybe we should all be wondering why so many are dying alone?

Thanks go to my fellow photo journalist, Milo Hess, for the use of his photographs taken in 2017 of Hart Island from afar.