Are victims of Covid-19 buried in trenches in New York City?

Last edition the 26 Apr 2020 17:18:40 - Review by Lina Fourneau , correction by , coordination by Nelly Pailleux

It's true

In summury

In a tweet posted on April 10th, CBS News showed a one-minute-footage of workers burying wooden coffins in large trenches. At first sight, the sequence might be shocking and leads to think that victims of Covid-19 are mass buried in New York. Although the footage is true, the reality is a bit more complex than a simple mass grave.

Since the beginning of April, New York City is facing a large-scale health crisis as the death toll due to Covid-19 pandemic rose up massively. To this day New York remains the American State the most affected by the pandemic – 17 126 deaths on April, 26th according to John Hopkins University.

The images of Hart Island were shot by Lucas Jackson for the Reuters press agency on 9th of April. and were largely spread by american as well as european medias with, sometimes, the mention of “mass burial”. It also led the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, to react in a tweet thread, declaring: 

Tweet Mayor of NY

“_Pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us. [...] There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual and everybody will be treated with dignity._”

These burials are related to the pandemic, but not unusual as the artist and director of the non-profit organization Hart Island Project, Melinda Hunt, says. Contacted by Journalistes Solidaires, she explained that the island, located in the Pelham Islands archipelago in the Bronx, is used as a public resting place for unclaimed bodies and public burials:

Hart Island is not just Covid-19. The city has been burying [there] for 151 years. There have been several epidemics [spanish flu and AIDS] in which people have been buried much the same way.

Before the pandemic, inmates of Riker’s Island who carried out the labor on Hart Island, buried 25 bodies a week. Contacted by email, the Spokesman of Department of Correction of New York City, Jason Kersten, who mentioned a rise to 25 bodies a day at the beginning of April, declared on Friday April, 24:

[Number of burials] varies by day. [In the week from April, 20. to April, 24.] a total of 85 people were buried.

Although the number of burials increased in the last weeks, the proportion of people who died from Covid-19 is not known. Melinda Hunt, whose work at Hart Island Project is to recover the biography of bodies on the Island, takes the example of AIDS epidemic to explain why :

Cause of death is confidential. We have an AID initiative and we encourage people to add stories. The city doesn’t disclose if someone died of AIDS but the friends and relatives that compose the stories talk about it. We hope that once we get the data we put online, so people can add stories about people who died of Covid-19.

Although Hart Island is primarily a last place for unclaimed bodies, Melinda Hunt noted on Tweeter that the economic repercussion of the pandemic on the city could lead people to ask for free public burials on the Island. She explains:

A lot of people in New York City have recently become unemployed and even the cheapest cremation is 1500 dollars, for many people that is quite a lot of money. They shouldn’t be ashamed if they cannot hire a proper funeral director because Hart Island burial is a decent burial in my opinion.

Since the beginning of April, sentenced inmates are no longer working on Hart Island. Instead, a private landscaping and gardening company, Pizzicusso Bros., has been hired by the City to perform the labor, according to New York Post’s information. Covid-19 crisis, however, does not explain this decision alone. Four month ago, the City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio signed the bill to transfer Hart Island’s management from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Therefore, inmates’ labor was expected to end in July 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic and the spread of the virus in Riker’s Island prison only accelerated the process.

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Vérifiée et vraie

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Last update
27 Apr 2020
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First intrigued by these images of what looks like inmates burying summary coffins in a common trench, we discover that Hart Island is used as a public cimetery since the 19th century for unclaimed bodies and free public burials. A non-profit organisation called Hart island Project, run by Melinda Hunt, has been documenting lives of those who were buried on the Island and unclaimed by their families.    We are trying to contact the promoter of the Project to try to understand its nature, how it works and what the eruption of the Co-vid crisis changes in the management of the project or its orientation.    Contacted by email and twitter, it does not follow up on our first contacts (since April 17).    We are trying the intermediation by a JS contact based on the east coast of the United States who could call HI to give credibility to our approach.    April 21: Contact with a correspondent journalist in the United States, Nastasia Peteuil, to help us get in touch with Melinda Hunt, promoter of the Hart Island project.    April 25: Interview with Melinda Hunt postponed. Mail contact with the landscaping company that has been doing funerals on Hart Island since April: Pizzrusso Bros Landscaping and Gardening.

Tracks and conclusions

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