Artist’s Study of Island Brings the Dead to Life
Adam Geller, Associated Press (October 30, 2010)
Hart Island Project
This is a really compelling article about a New York burial ground for unclaimed bodies. Adam Geller, from the Associated Press, wrote a lengthy piece about both Hart Island (the cemetery) and the woman who turned Hart Island into a fascinating artistic project. That artist, Melinda Hunt, features prominently in this tale. Here is the lead:
When the dead are delivered, four mornings a week, the ferry Michael Cosgrove is waiting.
A refrigerated truck from the city morgue follows Fordham Street to its stump, between a used boat dealership and a lot thick with weeds, and a high chain-link fence warning “Prison-Keep Off.” For New Yorkers who die without the money, family or identity required to get a proper funeral, the dock just beyond is the boarding point for a seven-minute journey to oblivion.
The destination is Hart Island, 101 acres of wind-swept sand and trees crooked in the waters a half-mile off the Bronx, like a beckoning finger.
If the more than 800,000 people laid to rest on the island over the last 141 years were alive, it would be the state’s second largest city. Dead and buried, they populate what is almost certainly the country’s largest public cemetery. But there are no headstones, no eulogies and no regular visiting hours.
In fact, most New Yorkers have never heard of Hart Island. In a city of 8.5 million lives, such a place may be a necessity. But it is one long deemed off-limits, home to stories better left untold.
At least that was the case until Melinda Hunt discovered it.
“This guy was a heroin addict and his girlfriend went looking for him … this is a Vietnam veteran who developed schizophrenia and he committed suicide,” Hunt says, flipping through sketches of Hart Island dead. “These people sort of speak to me.”
Hunt is an artist, but the portrait of Hart Island she has created over the past 19 years blurs the boundaries of that job description. The divorced mother of two college-age daughters has turned herself into Hart Island’s detective and de facto archivist, its lead witness and chief scribe.
Add it all up and it might not fit some people’s definition of art. But in this last refuge of the forgotten, Hunt says her Yale degree in sculpture and deftness with a charcoal pencil are only the starting point.
The end, as she sees it, is to unearth lost souls.
The article goes on from there and is a really good read. You will find similar kinds of articles in the Death + The Economy section of Death Ref. There is no shortage of unclaimed dead bodies these days.
Here, too, is a short section from a documentary entitled Hart Island: An American Cemetery.