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Seeking Dignity At Potter’s Field

John Tarleton Aug 10, 2005

An alliance of homeless activists and religious leaders has wrested an agreement from the city to allow monthly interfaith memorial services for the dead at Potter’s Field on Hart Island. About 2,000 to 3,000 unknown or unclaimed New Yorkers are buried each year in the pauper’s cemetery, which is administered by the city’s Department of Corrections. “This is about dignity in death,” said Amy Gopp, a pastor with Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “Anyone with a conscience would agree to that.”

“Homeless people are treated like garbage their whole lives and are then thrown into pits,” said Lynne Lewis, executive director of Picture the Homeless. “It’s very personal for us.” Picture the Homeless mobilized around the issue after the group’s cofounder, Lewis Haggins, Jr., died in a subway car in December 2003, and his friends and family were not notified of his burial on Hart Island as a “John Doe” until eight months later. On Aug. 2, members of Picture the Homeless and the Interfaith Friends of Potters Field met for over an hour with Department of Corrections spokesperson Tom Antenan. A tentative agreement was reached to allow regular religious services beginning in October. DOC regulations that forbid visits by non-family members will be relaxed so that several members of Picture the Homeless can hold a service for Haggins on Hart Island in September. Religious services are currently held at the city medical examiner’s office.

Potter’s Field reformers are also urging the Police Department’s missing-persons bureau to improve their process for identifying people who die without ID. The Police Department, the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services all had fingerprints and photos of Haggins in their records at the time of his death, according to William Burnett of Picture the Homeless.

“If you can identify someone who has been charged with a crime within 24 hours, you should be able to do it with a dead person as well,” said Burnett. “The data is there.” Melinda Hunt, coauthor of Hart Island, says it once took three years for her to help arrange a visit to the island for a family. “If you’ve lost somebody,” she said, “it’s a nightmare trying to make your way through the bureaucracy of the city of New York. People get lost in this city.”

Hunt says burial records should be put online so family members can locate loved ones. Hart Island, located in Long Island Sound just off the Bronx, is a desolate one-mile long by quarter-mile wide strip of land that has been the site of a potter’s field since 1868. More than 750,000 New Yorkers have been buried there. The island has also been home to a boys’ reformatory, a charity hospital for women, a prisoner-of-war camp, a drug-rehabilitation center, a school for bad drivers and a Nike missile base. Access is currently restricted to a work detail of prisoners from Rikers Island who perform burials and disinterments. Adults are buried in simple pine-box coffins in mass graves of 150 people, three deep and 50 long. Children under five are buried 1,000 to a grave.