Over a million people are buried in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island. A New York Times investigation uncovers some of their stories and the failings of the system that put them there.
twice a week or so, loaded with bodies boxed in pine, a New York City morgue truck passes through a tall chain-link gate and onto a ferry that has no paying passengers. Its destination is Hart Island, an uninhabited strip of land off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where overgrown 19th-century ruins give way to mass graves gouged out by bulldozers and the only pallbearers are jail inmates paid 50 cents an hour.
There, divergent life stories come to the same anonymous end.
No tombstones name the dead in the 101-acre potter’s field that holds Leola Dickerson, who worked as one family’s housekeeper for 50 years, beloved by three generations for her fried chicken and her kindness. She buried her husband as he had wished, in a family plot back in Alabama. But when she died at 88 in a New York hospital in 2008, she was the ward of a court-appointed guardian who let her house go into foreclosure and her body go unclaimed at the morgue.
By law, her corpse became city property, to be made available as a cadaverfor dissection or embalming practice if a medical school or mortuary class wanted it. Then, like more than a million men, women and children since 1869, she was consigned to a trench on Hart Island.
Several dozen trenches back lies Zarramen Gooden, only 17 when the handlebars of his old bike broke and he hit his throat, severing an artery. He had been popping wheelies near the city homeless shelter in the Bronx where he and four younger siblings lived with their heroin-addicted mother. With no funeral help from child protection authorities, his older sister scraped together $8 to buy the used suit he wore at his wake. But the funeral home swiftly sent him back to the morgue when she could not pay the $6,000 burial fee.
For Milton Weinstein, a married father with a fear of dying alone, there was no burial at all for two years after his death at 67. A typographer in his day, he had worked in advertising for Sears, Roebuck & Company. But he lost his career to technology and his vision to diabetes; his wife’s mental problems drove their children away. Though she was at his side when he died in a Bronx nursing home, she had no say over what happened to his remains — and no idea that his body would be used as a cadaver in a medical school and then shoveled into a mass grave on Hart Island.
New York is unique among American cities in the way it disposes of the dead it considers unclaimed: interment on a lonely island, off-limits to the public, by a crew of inmates. Buried by the score in wide, deep pits, the Hart Island dead seem to vanish — and so does any explanation for how they came to be there.
To reclaim their stories from erasure is to confront the unnoticed heartbreak inherent in a great metropolis, in the striving and missed chances of so many lives gone by. Bad childhoods, bad choices or just bad luck — the chronic calamities of the human condition figure in many of these narratives. Here are the harshest consequences of mental illness, addiction or families scattered or distracted by their own misfortunes.
But if Hart Island hides individual tragedies, it also obscures systemic failings, ones that stack the odds against people too poor, too old or too isolated to defend themselves. In the face of an end-of-life industry that can drain the resources of the most prudent, these people are especially vulnerable.
Indeed, this graveyard of last resort hides wrongdoing by some of the very individuals and institutions charged with protecting New Yorkers, including court-appointed guardians and nursing homes. And at a time when many still fear a potter’s field as the ultimate indignity, the secrecy that shrouds Hart Island’s dead also veils the city’s haphazard treatment of their remains.
These cases are among hundreds unearthed through an investigation by The New York Times that draws on a database of people buried on the island since 1980. The records make it possible for the first time to trace the lives of the dead, revealing the many paths that led New Yorkers to a common grave.
Matched with other public records, including guardianship proceedings, court dockets and hundreds of pages of unclaimed cadaver records obtained from the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, the database becomes a road map to unlocking Hart Island’s secrets.
Some secrets defy every expectation. Ruth Proskauer Smith, 102, died in her multimillion-dollar apartment in the Dakota building in Manhattan in 2010 after a life celebrated in a Times obituary and by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She now lies with 144 strangers in Trench 359.
“My God, she ended up there?” Gael Arnold exclaimed, shocked to learn that her mother had been buried on Hart Island in 2013, three years after her death and the donation of her body to science. Her children had assumed that the New York University School of Medicine would cremate her remains and dispose of the ashes, not send her corpse to the city morgue to be ferried to a pit.
Some secrets still resist unraveling. Timothy Daniels, 17, is buried in Trench 209. He died in 1990 in an upstate homeless shelter run by the city for men over 35, a place no juvenile was supposed to be. Yet there is no trace of any official inquiry into how he died there.
The common expectation today is that families will be on the front line of burial arrangements. But as many cases show, families can be lost or outlived, left in the dark or hobbled by the same economic and social forces that drove their kin toward Hart Island.
Under a New York State law rooted in the 1850s and last amended in 2007, next of kin can have as little as 48 hours after a death to claim a body for burial, or 24 hours after notification, “if the deceased person is known to have a relative whose place of residence is known or can be ascertained after reasonable and diligent inquiry.”
At that point, a body is legally available for use as a cadaver and for burial in a potter’s field. Medical schools have the right of first refusal; the bodies they reject are passed to mortuary classes for embalmment training, which is required for a funeral director’s license.
Views differ over whether the role of cadavers in teaching future doctors, or even undertakers, should outweigh any concerns about consent, religious prohibitions or disparate treatment of the poor. Even some anatomists now argue that the government’s power to appropriate the bodies of the marginalized should be unacceptable today. But most people are simply unaware of the practice.
With the rise of private body donations, most medical schools no longer claim corpses from the city morgue. Still, the city has offered at least 4,000 bodies to medical or mortuary programs in the past decade; among these, more than 1,877 were selected for use before a belated Hart Island burial, records show. The city temporarily halted the flow of cadavers in 2014 after the medical examiner’s office was caught in a series of blunders, including bodies lost or mixed up. But the practice resumed last spring when a mortuary school sued.
The city declines to identify the cadavers, invoking a privacy exception to public records laws. Citing security, the city’s Correction Department also repeatedly rebuffed The Times’s requests to witness Hart Island burials firsthand. Finally, in March, The Times used a drone to fly around the island’s shoreline and record burials on video.
For a decade, a small band of activists, led by a visual artist, Melinda Hunt, battled for access to the island’s handwritten burial ledgers. More than a year ago, Ms. Hunt turned hard-won facts and old images into a website for the nonprofit organization she founded, The Hart Island Project, and shared the underlying data with The Times.
The recovered stories reveal the powerful reach of the past. And they show that in a time of passionate debate over inequality, racism and economic exploitation, the potter’s field dead speak to us still.
strangers with common fate
The term “potter’s field” is biblical, referring to a clay-heavy piece of land near Jerusalem bought with the 30 pieces of silver returned by a remorseful Judas to the chief priests. Worthless for farming, the land would be used to bury strangers. The “strangers” in New York City after the Civil War were poor immigrants, African-Americans and casualties of the teeming, crime-infested slums.
The city bought Hart Island in 1868. It had been the site of a prison for Confederate soldiers, and for more than a century, the dead shared the island with living inmates of one kind or another, people who were likely to end up in its mass graves themselves.
The island is now haunted by the crumbling remnants of defunct institutions, among them a lunatic asylum, a tuberculosis hospital and a boys’ reformatory. In the bulldozed barrens between these ruins, inmates outfitted, chain-gang-style, in red stripes and Day-Glo orange caps stack the dead three deep.
Throughout human history, archaeologists say, the treatment of dead bodies has been a key indicator of status differences in a society; the “unworthy” poor become the unworthy dead. As a burial place, unmarked ground shared with many strangers is at the bottom of the hierarchy. But Hart Island’s dead were also always vulnerable to another fate.
New York was among many states that had added dissection to death sentences for murder, arson and even burglary by the early 19th century, when it was otherwise illegal. But the demand for cadavers in medical education had outstripped the legal supply of executed felons, and an illicit market in corpses mushroomed.
Its history is grim. Southern slave owners “donated” or sold bodies of dead slaves to medical schools; in the North, competing schools imported black bodies from the South in whiskey barrels. Potter’s fields, almshouse cemeteries and African-American burial grounds were routinely ransacked as medical professors paid for corpses, no questions asked. Other bodies were diverted from morgues and the charity wards of urban hospitals.
Society largely turned a blind eye as long as the body snatchers took the black, the poor or the powerless, historians point out. But when even the bodies of “respectable” whites were not safe, outrage erupted. There were riots against medical schools in Philadelphia, New Haven and New York, where in 1788 a hospital was sacked and Columbia College medical students were nearly lynched. Political furor peaked nationwide in an 1879 scandal, when the naked, stolen body of a United States congressman was discovered in an Ohio anatomy lab.
Lawmakers in many states concluded that the only way to protect the respectable was to give medical schools more of what they were already taking illegally: the bodies of the disenfranchised. One of the first such laws was New York State’s, passed in 1854 despite vehement oppositionfrom representatives of New York City’s immigrant poor. Over the next 50 years, many states followed suit, some passing laws requiring officials at every almshouse, prison, hospital and public institution to provide corpses to medical schools if the bodies would otherwise be buried at public expense.
Those are the roots of New York’s present statute. Today, the rise of cremation and body donation has altered funeral practices for many, but in poor communities — not least among a generation of African-Americans who migrated north from the Jim Crow South — a pauper’s grave and the specter of dismemberment never lost their horror as a final humiliation.
An opt-out provision in the law would seem to exempt the bodies of people who indicate that they do not want to be dissected or embalmed. But few are aware of it, and it may be unenforceable. Certainly it was unknown in the 1990s in the single-room occupancy hotel where an African-American woman named Gwendolyn Burke, blind and halt after a lifetime of menial work, had no way to avoid the potter’s field.
Sure enough, when she died at 89, Ms. Burke went to Hart Island. But first, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine claimed her as a cadaver and used her body for dissection for 13 months before she was interred in 2000.
“She didn’t deserve that,” said David Minton, the city social worker assigned to Ms. Burke’s hotel in Harlem, who learned of her body’s use 16 years too late to object.
high cost of dying alone
When Leola Dickerson fell to the floor of her house in Pleasantville, N.J., in February 2006, no one was there to notice. Her dog, Champ, waited in vain to be let in. Her upstairs tenant came and went by an outside staircase. Days passed before a mail carrier found her, barely conscious, and called 911.
Her husband, one of 10 siblings, had wanted to retire to live with relatives in rural Alabama, before he died. But Ms. Dickerson, born near Tuskegee in 1919, refused to go back. “I’m out of the South,” she would say. “We’re set in our ways, and God has blessed us.”
Family photographs covered her parlor walls: the children who had called her Grandma on visits from the South after she married their grandfather, Mango, in the 1960s; Mango’s nephew Joseph Dixon, the boy she had raised as her son; the grandsons of her deceased employers, Milton and Helen Katz, who had always treated her like kin. Black and white and tan, the faces overlapped inside old picture frames.
But at 86, Ms. Dickerson’s sole blood relative was her younger brother in New York, Johnny Maddox. After an ambulance took her to a hospital in New Jersey, he arranged to move her to a nursing home in Queens. The nursing home, saying she had dementia, petitioned the Queens County Court to appoint a guardian to manage her affairs and assets, including her house, valued at $88,200, and her monthly Social Security check of $783.
So began Leola Dickerson’s two-year journey to Hart Island.
In Pensacola, Fla., her dead husband’s granddaughter, Constance Dickerson Williams, knew something was wrong. She kept trying to call Grandma Leola, but no one answered. Finally she wrote, but there was no response.
In New York, everyone agreed that Ms. Dickerson needed a guardian, and the court appointed one from a list of lawyers.
On paper, Ms. Dickerson was now covered. By law, the guardian was to “exercise the utmost care and diligence when acting on behalf of the incapacitated person” and show “trust, loyalty and fidelity.” His powers and duties included creating “an irrevocable burial trust fund,” notifying relatives in the event of death and paying reasonable funeral expenses out of remaining assets.
But guardians are paid out of those same assets, and a house on the outskirts of Atlantic City did not promise much. Moreover, the nursing home’s lawyers were already claiming thousands of dollars in legal fees for bringing the guardianship petition in the first place.
A year went by as two appointed lawyers in succession declined to serve as her guardian. A third accepted but failed even to file the paperwork required to act on Ms. Dickerson’s behalf. After an appeal by Dr. Michael Katz, a physician and the elder son of Ms. Dickerson’s employers, the court appointed a fourth lawyer in October 2007. But by year’s end he had not submitted the necessary documents, either.
The need to safeguard or sell Ms. Dickerson’s house was urgent, Dr. Katz knew. He had rescued her from predatory lenders, covered $45,000 in needed repairs with a family loan and helped her collect rent from her tenant. Now, dying of a heart condition, Dr. Katz saw the empty house falling prey to squatters and scavengers.
“Leola Dickerson has been part of our family for 50 years,” he had written in a eulogy for his mother in 2000, when she died of Alzheimer’s disease at 86, tended by Ms. Dickerson, then 80. “Her years of devotion and caring for our parents will always be appreciated and never forgotten.”
Dr. Katz, 69, died on Jan. 18, 2008, and was buried three days later. Ms. Dickerson died at a Queens hospital on Jan. 22. Her body would wait in the morgue for three months and 21 days.
For a long time already, her adoptive son, Joseph Dixon, had been trying to find her. “She was a good mother,” he would say later. “Everybody loved her.”
Their relationship had suffered after he left the Army and struggled with drugs. Nevertheless, he visited her in the hospital in 2006 after learning of her fall. When he returned the next morning, she was gone and the hospital would not tell him where. They kept insisting, “She doesn’t have any kids.”
There had never been a formal adoption. But inside the locked Pleasantville house lay his high school diploma and his formal Army portrait. Outside towered the tree he had planted in fourth grade. He tried to find out who controlled the property, to no avail. One day the garage door was open, and the blue Thunderbird that Ms. Dickerson called her “baby” was gone. He figured then that she had passed.
Notice of her death went to her baby brother, Mr. Maddox, a diabetic undergoing a double amputation. “He was in bad shape when she passed,” the brother’s widow, Bernice, recalled. “He was in no position.”
Notice also went to the guardian and to the Queens County public administrator’s office, which calculated that she had only $342.24 left. It would go toward a $7,771.18 claim by the nursing home’s lawyers, or to offset $124,258.85 paid to the home by Medicaid.
That year the city referred 80 unclaimed Queens bodies to medical schools. Whether Ms. Dickerson was among them is not a matter of public record, but her burial site is: Trench 331, with 162 other bodies.
Even as her grave sank under bulldozers digging new trenches for the unclaimed, the unpaid tax liens on her house were being bought at auction, repackaged and resold for profit by various hedge funds.
By then the house was a boarded-up ruin where drug deals went down. When a stepgrandson, Thackus Dickerson, finally arrived, trying to find out what had happened to Grandma Leola, sheriff’s deputies showed up to demand his ID.
Yet the guardian and the nursing home’s lawyers were still battling for the last of her Social Security in 2012, four years after her death, the guardian claiming $23,793.69 in legal fees. He lost. The judge granted him just $1,576, and it became another uncollectable lien against a house in foreclosure that he never went to see.
The guardian, Jay Stuart Dankberg, 70, is a large man who wears big gold rings and meets visitors in a shabby Manhattan office crammed with overflowing cartons. He readily remembered the Dickerson case as a financial disappointment, but said he was hearing of his ward’s Hart Island burial for the first time.
“It shocks me,” Mr. Dankberg said. “I certainly should be paid, and certainly she shouldn’t be buried in potter’s field.”
Where did he think she would be buried?
“I hadn’t given it any thought,” he replied.
indifference and betrayals
New York’s guardianship statute was considered a model when it was passed in 1993. It did not work out that way. Government and news media investigations have repeatedly found the system swollen with well-connected lawyers siphoning fees from wards’ assets, and choked by paperwork requirements that fail to uncover even flagrant theft.
Past exposés have followed the money, not the human remains of wards with little left to steal. Guardianship data is spotty and often hard to obtain.
But here they are: guardianship files that bear the same names as people sent to Hart Island. Dozens of files can be identified and pulled one by one from courthouse storage.
Few of these wards were wealthy. But neither were they destitute — at least not until they entered the vortex of end-of-life care. In some cases of neglectful guardians, even the last safety net — a burial fund, a private plot, a will — proved no protection.
“That’s one of the most horrible, predatory things I’ve ever heard,” Felice Wechsler, a senior lawyer with the state’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service and a veteran of guardianship proceedings, said when informed that records showed that many people with guardians ended up on Hart Island.
Constance Mirabelli, a widowed bookkeeper with a jolly laugh and a love of riding city buses, had a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village and a burial plot in a Catholic cemetery before she was placed under a guardianship in 1999 at her landlord’s initiative.
“I’m not dilapidated yet,” Ms. Mirabelli told the psychiatrist sent by the city after her landlord complained that she was incontinent and sometimes let the bathtub overflow. “I can still kick pretty good.”
Four years, two guardians and two nursing homes later, Ms. Mirabelli died at 91. And despite her plot at St. John Cemetery in Queens, despite a $2,000 burial fund culled from her modest pension and preserved by court order, Ms. Mirabelli was among the last of 137 bodies to be lowered into Trench 307 in February 2004.
The guardian responsible for her at the time, Jo Ann Douglas, was a lawyer known for lucrative appointments as a law guardian for children in celebrity divorces. In her final accounting, she wrote that she had arranged “appropriate transport and burial for Ms. Mirabelli” — not specifying that she meant a city morgue truck and a pauper’s grave. Questioned 10 years later, Ms. Douglas found nothing in her old notes to explain her decision. “Do you know if she can be moved to St. John’s?” she asked in an email, seeking a way to undo the past.
Again and again, bulging guardianship files show that the consequences of bad luck and bureaucratic indifference fall with disproportionate cruelty on people who lack the buffer of money. Few are more vulnerable than immigrants to this proudly international city.
Ciro Ferrer, of Cuba, lies in Trench 357, where four dozen of 150 bodies have Hispanic names amid an Ellis Island grab bag. For 25 years, working in a food market in Elmhurst, Queens, Mr. Ferrer supported his wife and three children in Havana. But after the authorities found him disheveled and malnourished, wandering the streets near the Elmhurst apartment where he lived alone, he was initially described in records as 70, single and childless.
He told a court-appointed evaluator about his Cuban family after receiving a dementia diagnosis in 2007 and being placed at New Surfside Nursing Home in Far Rockaway, Queens. His guardianship file includes the Havana address and phone number of his wife, Regla, and even a 2008 report by his guardian citing a plan to buy him a phone card to call family “outside the country.”
But that never happened. The guardian, Nicholas S. Ratush, who collected $400 every month as a fee from Mr. Ferrer’s $669 Social Security check and paid the nursing home the rest, now says that he was unaware of any relatives and so could not notify any when Mr. Ferrer died on Oct. 29, 2012.
In Havana, Mr. Ferrer’s daughter, Ilda, 53, learned of her father’s death three years later from The Times. He was still alive, eight years ago, when her mother received a letter from the court evaluator saying that Mr. Ferrer was unable to care for himself, but her efforts to reply by phone and email went unanswered. Mr. Ferrer’s wife died soon afterward, and the children tried in vain to reach their father through the Red Cross and the United States government.
“We could do nothing,” his daughter said, “but let him die alone.”
wishes and plans ignored
To leave your kin to the potter’s field has long been considered shameful. But Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner, said many people chose not to claim relatives lying in the morgue. The office does not track the numbers, she said, or ask the reasons.
For the big sister of Zarramen Gooden, 17, buried on Hart Island in 1999, the reason still sears: “Did we want him in potter’s field? Hell no! We didn’t have the money. I felt so bad knowing that my brother’s body was just taken and dumped.”
Zarramen was the family clown, the lovable prankster who had known a better life. His father was a good provider, an Army veteran working two jobs as a janitor in Brooklyn, in a hospital and in a bank. But he died when the boy was 7, and the family ended up on welfare and in the drug-ravaged homeless-shelter system. Their mother, Rita Nelson, became addicted to heroin. After Zarramen’s freak bicycle accident, he bled to death on the way to the hospital.
When their mother died in 2014, the children came up with $7,000 for her burial in Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, beside her husband. Only then did they learn that the burial plot had room for one more. Zarramen?
“They told us it was too late,” said the older sister, Malondya LaTorre.
In another trench, from another realm in life, lies Doris McCrea, a widow who retired as the head of records retention for Continental Grain, one of the world’s largest privately held corporations. She outlived her family but had made careful provision to be laid to rest with her husband in a cemetery in Turners Falls, Mass. When she died at 100 on July 10, 2012, she had a generous prepaid burial plan and more than $5,400 in her personal account at the nursing home where she had lived for 15 years. Yet three days later, the city issued a permit to put her in the potter’s field. Within four months, she was in a trench with 148 others.
“That’s criminal,” said Audrey Ponzio, a friend and former colleague from Continental Grain, when she learned where Ms. McCrea had ended up.
As in many cases, Ms. McCrea’s personal information had been lost or ignored in the shuffle near the end of her long life, when she was sent from nursing home to hospital, from hospital to hospice. “What happened to this patient is very unfortunate,” said Dr. Jonathan Mawere, the administrator of the nursing home, Queens Boulevard Extended Care Facility, who was prompted by an inquiry from The Times to find and try to reactivate her burial plan, three years late.
Unclaimed graves, unspent burial funds and uncollected life insurance abound in this fragmented system, critics say. Even concerned survivors with money to pay for burial themselves are no guarantee against Hart Island.
Take Emmett Pantin, 57, placed on a ventilator in 2008 after a severe stroke. For five years, he was repeatedly reported to have only one living relative, an older brother on active military duty “somewhere in Iraq.” No one asked the Army to track down this brother, Master Sgt. Gerard Pantin, even when the younger brother died at 62 in July 2013 and was sent to Hart Island, his name misspelled Patin.
In fact, the brothers were two of nine siblings in a family from Trinidad. Relatives there and in the United States had been trying to find Emmett Pantin for nearly a year when they learned from a website that he had died. Immobile, voiceless, suffering bedsores and depression, he had been transferred through at least four medical institutions under the supervision of a court-appointed guardian in his last year of life, records show.
“Before he died, they kept telling us they couldn’t find him,” Sergeant Pantin said when reached in Florida, where he had retired from the Army at 69 in 2015, after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Up to now we didn’t know where the body was. I told them: ‘This is America. If somebody went to the hospital and went to a nursing home, how can they not know where he is?’”
the cadaver market
The unclaimed dead wait in cold storage, shelved on racks in city morgues. In theory, all who are destined for that last ferry ride are first subject to selection as educational cadavers under the authority of the chief medical examiner.
In practice, of those buried on Hart Island, only a portion — roughly 300 to 600 out of some 1,500 annually — were ever officially offered as anatomical specimens on the weekly or biweekly lists discreetly circulated by the medical examiner’s office, citing name, age, race, sex, place and date of death. Fewer still were chosen.
“A lot of cherry picking,” said Jason Chiaramonte, a licensed funeral director who for many years handled the acquisition of so-called city bodies for Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. “It’s like, ‘Hey, Jason, we have 10 people here; we’re going to bury them at potter’s field next week. If you want to take a look, see if you can use some.’”
“Technically, they’re city property,” Mr. Chiaramonte added, “and technically, they’re only loaning them to us.”
Ms. Bolcer, the spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, said the city had stepped up efforts to identify relatives through the Internet and commercial databases. “We are enormously conservative about which bodies get offered to schools under the current law that requires us to make unclaimed bodies available,” she said.
The street homeless and other casualties of rough living are generally not wanted by medical schools. Old age, however, is no obstacle. And each borough’s morgue has had its own way of parceling out the cadavers, despite recurrent scandals over corruption and lawsuits over body mix-ups.
Rivals for the bodies periodically clash over access to the city’s supply, and even over individual corpses. Medical schools have chafed at one-day body loans made to the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service, which these days signs out corpses at the Queens morgue, drives them to embalming classes in Midtown Manhattan and returns them after mortuary students have practiced incisions, drainage and chemical infusion — a process that leaves the cadavers unfit for medical schools’ purposes.
Record-keeping of such loans is sloppy; documents show some bodies signed out and never signed back in. And for decades, McAllister, along with the mortuary science department at Nassau Community College, had even more casual access to the dead, conducting classes inside the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan until Hurricane Sandy flooded the premises in 2012.
Religious charities that handle burials have fruitlessly sought access to the names of people lying unclaimed.
“We can’t get the morgue lists,” complained Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which is dedicated to providing a traditional private interment to any Jew who cannot afford one. “We can’t march into Einstein and say: ‘Hold that scalpel! That person’s Jewish; they belong to us.”
So it was that Milton Weinstein, 67, a Brooklyn-born Reform Jew, became one of three bodies from nursing homes that Mr. Chiaramonte borrowed from the Bronx morgue on April 28, 2009, for Einstein’s use. In a log book at the morgue, Mr. Chiaramonte filled out and signed a funeral director’s receipt for each. He loaded the bodies on stretchers and trucked them away. It would be at least two years before they were buried.
There are no rules on how long such corpses can be used. The medical examiner’s office redacted all cadavers’ names from the records it gave The Times under the Freedom of Information Law. But hundreds could be identified anyway, through comparisons of dates and places of death. Many were separately confirmed by people with access to unredacted records. Some cadavers were traced to past lives and lost relatives.
“My God — where was his body for 24 months?” Michael Wynston, Mr. Weinstein’s estranged son, asked when he first learned that his father had been buried on Hart Island on April 20, 2011, two years after his death at Bay Park Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Bronx.
With bitterness and self-reproach, Mr. Wynston sketched the broken arc of his father’s life. Widowed in 1970s Brooklyn with a 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old adopted daughter, Mr. Weinstein remarried and clung to his second wife, Lynda, then a hospital nurse with a son of her own. Even when her descent into mental illness and abusiveness destroyed the blended family, Mr. Wynston said, his father rejected his suggestion of divorce, saying, “I’d rather have this than nothing.”
His daughter ran away. His stepson fled the turmoil to live with his own father. Eventually Michael, who last saw his father in 2002, changed his surname to Wynston, partly, he said, “so my father and stepmother wouldn’t find me.”
To the stepson, Barry Gainsburg, now a lawyer in Florida, Mr. Weinstein’s fate was part of a larger economic unraveling. “The bottom line is, his industry was taken out by the computer age,” he said, referring to Mr. Weinstein’s career as a typographer. “He was a good guy; he just got crushed by society.”
A diabetic, Mr. Weinstein lost his last job, driving for a car service, because of dimming sight. Destitute and ailing, he and his wife entered the nursing home together. When he died there in 2009, they had been residents for at least three years. But the nursing home, which did not respond to repeated inquiries about the case, sent his body to the morgue as unclaimed, and transferred his widow, over her objections, from the Bronx to a nursing home in Brooklyn.
“It’s like the nursing home just collects their Medicaid checks, and when they’re done, they just throw them in a heap outside,” Mr. Wynston said.
Eventually, after Ms. Weinstein had been shuffled through a series of nursing homes, a Brooklyn hospital contacted her son: She was undergoing surgery for lung cancer. The stepbrothers learned only then of Milton’s death. Nobody could tell them where he was buried. Now they realize why: He was still being used as a cadaver.
“It’s the guilt and regret that I live with,” Mr. Wynston said. “I essentially abandoned him.”
the ferry ride out
In Greek mythology, the ghosts of the unburied dead visit the living, demanding proper burial. In New York City’s lexicon, Hart Island counts as decent burial — at least for those who can afford no other. But the longing to bring one’s own dead home runs deep.
Sometimes the island’s ledgers show a disinterment date. Here are the favored few, exhumed by number from the trench grid, collected by a funeral home and ferried back for a different ending.
Among these cases are two stories as redemptive as any faith could pray for, stories that illuminate what others have lost in the darkness that surrounds Hart Island.
Monica Murray, the oldest in a large Irish Catholic family, had married at 20. She was a good, protective mother to her two daughters, Maureen and Linda. But in 1986, when they were 22 and 17, she abruptly emptied the family bank account and vanished.
“When your mom walks out on you and takes all the money and doesn’t leave a note, there’s a lot of hurt and anger,” Maureen Eastman, the older daughter, recalled.
Their mother briefly surfaced in St. Lucia, living with an abusive man and asking for money. Their father, who had filed a missing person’s report, secured a quick divorce. Bitterness drove a wedge between the daughters and their maternal relatives. Except for a sighting at a Long Island halfway house in 1988, they heard nothing more of their mother for 25 years — years when they hated her.
In June 2013, their father got a call that changed everything. Ms. Murray was dead. She had died back in January, and she was buried on Hart Island.
“There’s no words to describe how sad and overwhelmed we were to find out that’s where she ended up,” Ms. Eastman said. “We could barely sleep knowing that she was there.”
More revelations followed. Their mother had spent a decade in Creedmoor, a psychiatric institution in Queens, before being transferred in 1998 to New Surfside Nursing Home. No visitors; alert but increasingly racked by seizures; ultimately unable to speak.
On Facebook, Ms. Eastman, living in Arizona, reached out to New York relatives she had not spoken to for decades. Her mother’s brother, a retired firefighter, was adamant: They would bring Ms. Murray back, to Grandma and Grandpa’s plot in St. Charles/Resurrection Cemeteries in Farmingdale on Long Island.
As cousins gathered, Ms. Murray’s daughters learned for the first time that Huntington’s disease ran in the family. Those who inherit the incurable brain disorder become progressively unable to walk, talk, think or swallow. Symptoms typically start in the 30s or 40s, often with impulsive, manic behavior — like taking the money and running.
When she died, Ms. Murray had $6,887 left in her personal account at New Surfside. But she was buried as an indigent because the nursing home, which had collected $1.1. million from Medicaid for her care over the last decade of her life, failed to turn over her remaining funds promptly. (The nursing home declined to comment.)
In an eerie coda, when money surfaced, the Queens County public administrator offered a funeral home $4,295 to disinter and transfer her body to a cut-rate New Jersey graveyard without markers. But when the undertakers checked Hart Island, she was not there. She had already been lifted from the pit, into the bosom of her family.
Her headstone reads: “Loving Mother, Daughter, Sister and Aunt.”
“You feel grief,” Ms. Eastman said. “But you feel: ‘You know what? I’m allowed to love you again, Mom.’”
That same year, it took a whole community to reclaim another Hart Island exile, a woman who died alone at 53 in her brownstone apartment in Manhattan.
In her late 30s, Sheryl Hurst had been drawn to Congregation Rodeph Sholom, an Upper West Side synagogue, and she sang in its choir for years before formally converting to Judaism. With free-flowing hair and a mysterious facial deformity, she was a familiar presence, but no one knew her story.
Neither of her parents was Jewish. She was born three years after her mother, Terry Saunders, sang in the 1956 Hollywood version of “The King and I” as the head wife, Lady Thiang. Ms. Hurst’s younger father, James Hurst, played cowboys in television westerns. Her parents broke up when she was about 4. As a teenager, she tried to kill herself, fell unconscious on a bathroom heater and badly burned her face.
“A funny thing happened to me on the way to becoming Jewish,” she wrote when she completed an adult bat mitzvah class in 2007. “I, an atheist, developed a strong belief and deep love for God.”
She had always lived with her mother and was devastated by her death in 2011. But in June 2012, she was looking forward to chanting at a special service, and when she did not show up, the synagogue kept trying to reach her. Finally, the cantor posted a note at Ms. Hurst’s building on West 76th Street in Manhattan, appealing for information.
Word came back: Ms. Hurst had died in May — the synagogue members had just missed her at the morgue. She was lost to Hart Island.
“Everybody was just distraught,” said Sally Kaplan, vice president of the congregation. “Somehow we had to bring Sheryl home.”
They enlisted Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, a rare nonprofit funeral home, to try to retrieve Ms. Hurst for burial in the synagogue’s cemetery. The process took nine months and was not easy. Among many requirements was written permission from Ms. Hurst’s long-estranged father in California.
At first, he said he had not had a relationship with his daughter. But when they explained what they were doing, he wept, saying, “God bless you all.”
Now her headstone bears not only her birth name but the Hebrew name she chose, Eliana, “because it means, ‘God answered me,’” and an inscription by the community that refused to leave her in the dark: “Forever in Our Hearts.”