The Island of the Nameless Dead

Yahair Gil

In 1775, British cartographers gave the name Heart Island (due to its organ-like shape) to a small island located to the east of City Island, in the northeastern Bronx in New York City. Nowadays, this island’s official name is Hart Island, but its more popular name is “The Island of the Dead”. It is estimated that more than a million corpses[1] lie there, buried in rustic and oblong boxes, in various mass graves[2].

Hart Island is also known as Potter’s Field, a synonym of the expression “common grave” referring to a cemetery for poor people. The term is ambiguous; it can be used to describe the location (the cemetery or grave) as well as the types of bodies lying in those spaces. To put it in other words, a Potter’s Field “is where the most worthless are buried, usually in “communal” conditions”[3].

To talk about Hart Island is to talk about a history of death. But not of just any death: of a very specific death. The corpses buried there belong to people excluded from the city: the outsiders, the outcasts, the elderly, the poor, the prisoners, the unproductive, the addicts, the babies, the nameless…

It has always been like this. Soldiers who participated in the Civil War, which ended in 1865, were buried here. A few years later, in 1868, New York City acquired Hart Island to transform it into a public cemetery.  During the yellow fever epidemic of 1870, infected people were quarantined on the island, but the mass burials on the island started in 1875. In the beginning of the 20th century, the island hosted an old people’s asylum and a hospital for women with tuberculosis as well as a juvenile detention center. In 1914, with the intention of discharging the excess population in New York City’s prisons, the older prisoners were sent to Hart Island.

During WWII, the island was used by the army as a disciplinary encampment. Once the war was over, the island maintained various uses, ranging between prison, asylum, rehabilitation center, and even a missile launch base during the Cold War[4].

The mass burials on the island continue. Hart Island is still the space dedicated to the population dying in the streets, the unrecognizable people, the vagabonds, the poor, the urban pariahs[5]. Recently, Hart Island drew attention again: dozens of New Yorkers and immigrants are being buried on a daily basis on the small island. The bodies are those who were sick with COVID-19 that aren’t claimed by anyone simply because they don’t have family or because their family cannot afford the funeral services[6]. Up until before the pandemic, the common graves were dug by Rikers Island’s prisoners themselves. The metaphor is simply doleful: lives that aren’t worth living burying corpses of strangers that do not deserve mourning or recognition[7].

The modern, gigantic New York City’s skyscrapers, the city of cities, project enormous and cold shadows in which live countless homeless people. In the city, there is no space for these undesirable people, not even when they die; the only space that these people have is the body they inhabit[8] in the deep ditches of the Potter’s Field.

The first cities came to existence thanks to the construction, care and protection of the graves: they create a link between living people and their deceased ones[9]. The grave intends to make the body’s material and ephemeral structure everlasting. The edification of a grave, therefore, allows the dead body’s transformation into a monument, into the “tangible expression of permanence or, at least, of duration”[10]. Cities are great monuments to death.

However, in the 21st century, the city does not keep any relation to its deceased people. The nameless dead, the dead without a grave, the dead without a morning ritual, are condemned to oblivion, to the real death. Living people will keep on dying and cities will die if they don’t find a way to claim their dead people. Otherwise, our destiny is meaningless: we will face a present without memory and a future without past.

In the meantime, it is our responsibility to think about our country, to think about ourselves, to think about our dead people. What will happen to these dead people? Who will name them? Will new common graves open, will new ditches be dug, and will entire fields open to receive all of us? Mexico was, already long before this pandemic, the country of the nameless dead.

[1] S/A., “History”, en The Hart Island Project. Retrieved from:

[2] See “Rare photographs of Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field”, en New-York Historical (consultado el 16 de abril de 2020). Recuperado de

[3] Graham Denvery, “The Potter´s Field”, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 60, 2008, pp. 539-568. Available online:

[4] Allison C. Meier, “Pandemic victims are filling NYC’s Hart Island. It isn’t the first time”, en National Geographic, Retrieved from; S/A., “City Cemetery Hart Island (Potter’s Field)”, in Correction History. Retrieved from

[5] I’m referring here to the following book: Loïc Wacquant, Parias urbanos. Marginalidad en la ciudad a comienzos del milenio, Buenos Aires: Manantial, 2001.

[6] Redaction, “Coronavirus en EE.UU.: los entierros en una fosa común en Nueva York, la ciudad que tiene más casos de covid-19 que cualquier país del mundo”, en BBC World. Retrieved from

[7] I’m here referring to the idea that some lifes are worth crying for in Judith Butler’s famous book, Marcos de guerra. Las vidas lloradas, México, DF: Paidós, 2010.

[8] I’m playing here with the notions of space and place in Marc Augé’s terms, when he writes that a place is like “the space in which a body is put, just like a corpse inhabits a grave”. Just like Augé, I prefer an active conception of the notion of space and place; see Marc Augé, Los “no lugares”. Espacios del anonimato, Barcelona: Gedisa, 2008,  p. 59.

[9] Lewis Mumford, La ciudad en la historia, La Rioja: Pepitas de calabaza, 2002, p. 15 y ss.

[10] M. Augé, op. cit.,  pp. 65 y 67.

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