A Hart Island Memorial Service


Graves on Hart Island
Graves on Hart Island

The number of homeless people in New York City on any given night is estimated at 36,000.

And during the long history of Trinity Wall Street, the congregation has always reached out to its vulnerable neighbors.

Currently, Brown Bag lunches are available twice a week in the churchyard. Trinity partners with the Bowery Residents’ Committee and the Downtown Alliance to provide outreach through housing, medical, detox, and psychological services.

Now, another previous Trinity Grants partner, the advocacy group Picture the Homeless, is raising greater awareness of and respect for those who lie in repose in New York City’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom remain anonymous even in death.

In its Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church remembers all the dead “known to us and unknown.” Trinity Wall Street’s support of the multi-faith work of remembrance on Hart Island honors that tradition.

A Hart Island Memorial Service

By Jim Melchiorre

Hart Island is narrow and wind-swept, a place where nobody lives, and where only a couple of dozen people work for perhaps six hours on any weekday.

Yet, stepping ashore, I felt not isolation but rather a silent, unseen presence.

Eight of us had crossed the two-thousand feet of water between Hart Island and City Island in the Bronx, by ferry, for a memorial service for more than 800,000 people.

That number is not a typographical error.

Hart Island is the site of New York City’s Potter’s Field, reputed to be the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

The Rev. Patty Alexander, Vicar of Grace Episcopal Church on City Island, often leads the memorial service. Her congregation hosts breakfast and lunch for those who attend.

“I try to ask God’s blessing on those who have been buried there,” Alexander said.

The memorial services are organized by Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group for people who are currently without housing.

Hart Island is off-limits to virtually everyone, controlled by the Department of Correction, with prisoners traveling there to bury the dead and maintain the grounds.

Picture the Homeless negotiated with the city to permit the bi-monthly memorial services, within strict security parameters. Visitors must be escorted by DOC personnel and may carry no cameras or cell phones.

Owen Rogers of Picture the Homeless often joins the memorial service. Rogers has lived in shelters and recalls a man he knew as Sid, sleeping a few cots away, who became ill one night and was taken away by ambulance.

“He died. But nobody ever told us that,“ Rogers remembered.

Over the past one-and-a-half centuries, Hart Island has served as the final resting place not only for the unidentified homeless but also for persons whose families cannot afford to bury them, including thousands of infants.

Mother Patty Alexander compares the memorial services with the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“We talk about the unknown, who God knows by name.”

The first person laid to rest by the city on Hart Island was Louisa Van Slyke in 1869. During the height of the crack epidemic of the early 1990s about 2,500 persons a year were buried here.

Now the Department of Correction oversees about 1,400 burials annually, with about a hundred disinterred each year when families learn of their loved one’s whereabouts and move the remains to another cemetery.

Both Owen Rogers and the Rev. Patty Alexander want to recruit more people for the memorial services, especially from churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Hart Island’s dead never had funerals to accompany their burial. The small groups that ride over on the ferry every two months are providing, finally, a sacred rite of passage.

Alexander calls the services “transformative,” adding

“Whatever we can do is a gift of grace.”

On the July morning I traveled to Hart Island, we stood on a wooden gazebo and listened to the wind, and to the sound of a buoy clanging as it rose and fell with the tide of the Long Island Sound.

And we felt that silent, invisible presence.

Jim Melchiorre is senior producer for Trinity Television.