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The Unbefriended Dead

by Robert Earle

How the City Inters Its Indigents and Unknowns

Special to the Times, by Ellis Theodore, July 17, 1976

My father passed a custom to me when I was very young. He’d head outside with me in a stroller and walk through the city for miles. When I was old enough, I surrendered the stroller to my younger sister and padded beside him as he pushed her along sidewalks, up and down curbs, across streets, and sometimes took shortcuts through alleyways and abandoned lots.

We walked and looked and talked about what we saw — the buildings, the bridges, the construction sites, the store windows, traffic, scraggly trees and modest diners where we decided to take a break before heading off again.

If you did that in the 1950s or if you did it today, you inevitably would see something likely to register on you with uncommon force. There are corpses in the city. Some look like they are sleeping, and some really are sleeping, but the ones that aren’t sleeping, that are lying in the various postures of death, eyes open, blood evident somewhere on their body or not, perhaps sprawled face down on the asphalt or cement or bricks in a way no one would choose to sleep, have left life never to return.

My father was a sensitive, thoughtful man who let me ask the question when I was ready. I tiptoed my way around it by privately comparing these human remains to the cats, rats, dogs, and birds I also saw. These creatures were dead, and the people whom we occasionally passed were dead, too. Everything fit. All was the same. Maybe I didn’t have to ask the question. I could see what had happened with my own eyes, couldn’t I?

The truth is that death did not mean much to me when I was five or six. I’m more intimidated by it in my thirties. I don’t think I’m in imminent danger of death, but I now have means and reason to ponder it that I did not have then.

Then I essentially saw the dead as variations on motionlessness. That dog or person was not moving. That dog or person would not move again. Life for me had something to do with moving — our walking, for instance — and the condition of not being alive was the simple fact of lying forever motionless in doorway, on a park bench, perhaps even on the fire escape of an abandoned building.

That one, the one on the fire escape, is the one that made me speak. I saw him almost a block away, the first body above my head instead of at my feet.

“What happens to people who die with no one to take care of them?”

“The city takes care of them,” my father said. “They’re the unbefriended dead, and it’s the city’s job to get them into a grave.”

As we walked under the man on the fire escape, I decoded the meaning of “unbefriended dead” quite fully even though I had not heard it before. I probably had never heard the word “befriend” before either; but no matter, all was mysteriously and impossibly clear: in a city of millions, these individuals did not have and may never have had a friend.

As we all know, friends are the next most important thing to a child after parents, even more important than toys. I was somewhat lonely as a child, so I made a friend of my sister immediately, and she eventually made friends easily, whom I would borrow. Was it worse than death, not having a friend? Not being befriended? That’s what stabbed me deepest.

Recently I became aware of an unidentified child whom the police had recovered from a trash dump; in polite terms, a landfill. This child was estimated to be eleven years old and the coroner determined that he had starved.

I thought about the next question I asked my father: where did the city put the unbefriended dead in their graves?

He said the city buried them in Potters Field.

Where was Potters Field?

My father said it was on an island off the Bronx.

Okay. Enough. We didn’t see corpses every time we took our walks; we might see only a few a year; and they had a place where they would go.

Then I heard about the boy who had starved, and I began to wonder about him, where he had come from and what had happened to him, and exactly how the city handles its unbefriended dead.

This is treacherous terrain. The reader may wish to move onto another article now. Something disturbingly moral attaches itself to this subject, and I won’t have to put my finger on the scale that weighs a person’s compassion to ensure that what I write will cause pain.

The unidentified bodies that appear in New York City add up to five or ten every day, week after week, year after year. The boy had no papers. No one had filed a missing persons report about him. He was unknown and unclaimed. The procedure after retrieving him from the trash dump was to take him to the morgue at Bellevue Hospital where the coroner declared the cause of death.

Several weeks after the fact, I started my inquiry by going to the morgue and requesting information about this particular boy. I almost wish I hadn’t done that, because I had the questionable good fortune of receiving excellent cooperation and being shown a photograph of the corpse, for this is the procedure with the unbefriended dead. They are examined, certified dead, fingerprinted, photographed, wrapped in shroud paper and moved to a work room where they are placed in a pine box lined with waterproof paper.

Their possessions, such as they may be, are put into the box with them. Why, you may ask. Well, their clothes, a ring, glasses — anything at all — might lead to identification if sufficient cause is established to disinter their remains. But I’ll discuss disinterment later.

The coffin is then closed and receives, along with however many other coffins are stacked in the dispatch room, a blessing. This blessing varies depending on whom is available to render it. Sometimes the unbefriended dead bear things like crosses or tefellin so a conclusion can be drawn that said person was Roman Catholic or Jewish. In such cases, efforts are made to ensure a denominationally correct ritual.

My boy, as I think of him now, received nondenominational treatment. In the photograph, he looked shockingly like an old man. He had lost much of his brown hair. He wore a filthy white shirt, a heavy brown sweater, a coat resembling a Pea jacket, no belt, stovepipe wool trousers, battered black half-boots, and orange socks that pooled around his emaciated shins.

Dressed as he was, he did not look like an American boy to me. Because he was Caucasian, I thought he must have come to New York from somewhere in Europe. I can’t say more. He was not embalmed, he was not wearing make-up, his scraps of hair were in disorder, his limbs had retracted into a fetal crouch, his eyelids were drawn down, and his mouth appeared oversized for his shrunken head.

With plastic-wrapped copies of a burial permit — one on the corpses’ breast and one fastened to the top of the pine coffins — the coffins are loaded onto a city morgue wagon that transports them to a ferry operated by the Department of Marine and Aviation.

I should mention that some of the boxes are very small. No need to elaborate. And a few are marked “limbs.”

The ferry takes the morgue wagon to Hart Island, which the city purchased in 1868. Ironically, the first indigent interred in the cemetery on Hart Island is known. She was Louisa Van Slyke, an orphan who died in Charity Hospital at the age of twenty-four. Since then the cemetery has received over 600,000 corpses, slightly less than a quarter of them infants.

I was not supposed to accompany the morgue wagon, get on the ferry, disembark, and pass through the dock security officer, but the morgue wagon driver agreed to introduce me as an assistant learning the ropes.

Hart Island is about a mile long and less than half a mile wide. It’s a bedraggled place under constant assault from scrub trees, wild grasses and weeds. In addition to functioning as the city’s cemetery for the unknown and indigent, it has hosted jails, an insane asylum, Nike missiles, quarantine facilities, a reformatory, a chapel, and a workshop for making shoes. Some think the island should be called Heart Island because of its shape. Others attribute the name to an archaic word for stag.

The morgue wagon driver told me this. He also took me through the journey of the city’s original unbefriended dead who began the 19th century interred in Washington Square and then were relocated further uptown twice before being disinterred and reburied for a fourth and final time on Ward’s Island in 1857. “Paupers and strangers” was the common way of referring to them. There were 100,000 remains involved in this final disposition.

Imagine the labor involved, the time, the processions of horse-drawn wagons, the hauling and ferrying and impatience to have done with this monumental chore. Apparently Ward Island was almost saturated with coffins; soon, it couldn’t take any more, and once the Civil War was over and city officials had time to consider what they would do next, they settled on Hart Island. The Hunter family sold it for $75,000.

The gravediggers awaiting the morgue wagon on which I rode came to work from the jail on Riker’s Island. This assignment is welcomed by many prisoners on Riker’s. It gets them outside and gives them a useful trade, or so I briefly heard. I was not permitted to interview them after one spoke to me and told me this. The Riker’s guards insisted I was a distraction and should keep my distance. These guards were the only individuals, in fact, who objected to my inquiry throughout the day. Everyone else seemed relieved to have someone to talk to.

Coffins are placed in trenches that are fifteen feet wide, forty feet long, and seven or eight feet deep. Adults are stacked three high; children are stacked five high; boxes of limbs are placed where they fit. Digging deep graves is hard work, but the prisoners seemed content and engaged and suitably solemn. No ceremony is performed at this juncture. The dirt comes out, the coffins go in, the dirt goes back.

Because my boy had been buried on Hart Island recently, I had access to fresh records and no trouble identifying his trench and the row in which he lay. It was only then that I realized he had been tall enough to require an adult’s coffin. The photograph didn’t tell me that, and I had been too dazed in the morgue to ask to see what might be called an autopsy report that presumably recorded his height. I say “what might be called” because obviously there was no need to open this boy up; if there had been an autopsy, it was a visual once-over, not a full-scale assessment.

What can you do when you are doing what I was doing except stare at the recently disturbed earth and think about the fact that over time it has been reused — approximately once every twenty-five years — because the remains and their coffins have followed the Biblical path: ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Four times a century the same plots receive more dead. With settling and decay, there’s room.

The morgue wagon driver joined me and asked whether I was contemplating disinterment. I said no, I was just clinging to this particular body as a way of holding myself together as I reported this story.

He didn’t seem satisfied, intimating I must bear some closer relation to the boy and that it would be all right to acknowledge that fact. He meant in the moral sense, but this caused me to reflect on the legal and bureaucratic implications morality would impose upon me if I did bear some relation to the boy.

I would have to go through the ordeal of petitioning for disinterment, which would entail explaining my negligence. How, for instance, could I have lost track of a boy that age? But the disturbing truth is that hundreds of times a year someone realizes what has happened and goes through the sensitive process of getting a body back.

Not infrequently the district attorney gives the order, looking for evidence connected to a crime. That would be much easier, it seems to me, than realizing you had let someone down whom you ought not to have let down. I was thankful I didn’t bear that responsibility.

I could see my boy, however, because his picture was so fresh in my mind. I could look right through the dirt and there he was.

“You weren’t even his friend?” the morgue wagon driver asked.

“No, really, I didn’t know him at all. I just heard about this case and became curious about what happens when the city has to do the burial.”

“Everyone knows Hart Island is out here,” the morgue wagon driver said.

I admitted he was right. Somewhere and at some time in my life, spent entirely in New York City, I had heard about Potters Field on Hart Island. I even knew where the term “potters field” first appeared. According to St. Matthew, the remorseful Judas had surrendered his thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests of the Temple “and they took counsel, and bought with them the potters’ field to bury strangers in.” And then Judas hanged himself.

My father died when I was eleven and received a dignified burial. My sister was there, of course; no one else mattered to me or, probably, to him. But as I have indicated, he had long since inculcated in me the custom of walking through New York, and I kept doing it, looking at construction and demolition sites, listening to people talk, watching them behave, and occasionally passing a corpse.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but none of those bodies moved me to alert the police. I suppose it was because I was alive and moving and they weren’t, and I did not want to stop for fear of entanglement in their motionlessness. That’s the most charitable thing I can say for myself.

Others may decide to say worse: I wasn’t a friend to them. I won’t argue the point. I just kept walking. Then I heard about this unknown boy reclaimed from a dump, and there was no explaining it. Even if I could never know where he had come from, I had to know where he had gone.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Earle

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