The topic might be considered by some a little morbid but…
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you live in New York City and are either unfortunate enough to die in prison, have no relatives, are indigent and/or just plain unlucky enough that you don’t have a family or the means to tend to your remains. Where do you wind up?
Since 1868, it seems that the Department of Corrections operates a facility that is officially called City Cemetery but is more colloquially known as Potter’s Field. Located on Hart Island in the Bronx and nestled in the Long Island Sound, its estimated that over the years, some ¾ of a million people have come to call Potter’s Field their final resting place. The island measures about one mile in length and is about 1/3 of a mile wide. It is not open to the general public.
What’s the Procedure?
It seems that if you are unfortunate enough to die in one of the circumstances I’ve previously mentioned, here’s what you can expect to happen.
First of all your death has to be reported. There is a statute within NYC that requires citizens who become aware of a death to report said death to their local Police precinct. Your local constables will then notify the Chief Medical Examiner. Should your number be called while you're in a City hospital and nobody claims your body within 24 hours of the time of the mailing notice of your death, the Department of Hospitals is then authorized to allow burial at Potter’s Field.
Your body is then shipped off to the county morgue and the medical examiner applies for a burial permit. Your body is wrapped in a shroud of paper and sealed within a water-proof pine coffin. If you have no identification, you are fingerprinted and photographed. Your clothes and any belongings you might have had on you at the time will also be interred in the coffin. Specially treated burial notices that remain legible for upwards of twenty five years also accompany you on your trip to the great beyond.
You are then tossed into the morgue wagon (along with anybody else who met a similar fate during the week) for your journey to Potter’s Field.
Who Buries Me?
A team of inmates are in charge of digging trenches that range 15-40 feet wide are 7-8 feet deep. Adult bodies are stacked three high. You will have no tombstone but instead can be identified by a numerical system that is in place should you have to be exhumed. Exhumations number about 150 per year.
This might surprise ya!
When I conjure up an image of those people who call Potter’s Field their final resting place, my mind automatically flashes to vagrants/winos/bums and other assorted denizens of Skid Row who for whatever reason, were either victims of society or willingly made a choice to live that way. This is not the case folks, the vast majority of people buried in Potter’s Field are/were law abiding, good citizens who, during their lifetime managed to work to pay the bills and lived on a week to week basis. They just couldn’t afford the cost of a private funeral.
Last but certainly not least, and maybe recognizing their future fate, in 1948 the prisoners erected a simple monument in the middle of the site. It is thirty feet in height and on one side engraved with a simple cross. The other side simply says one word, “Peace”.