Except for the bodies of unclaimed victims, the vast majority of New Yorkers who died of coronavirus will get a proper, private burial, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday.
Responding to published reports and photos showing workers burying the dead on Hart Island on Thursday, de Blasio took to Twitter on Friday to reject the notion that those killed by coronavirus were being buried en masse in the city’s potter’s field.
Located off the Bronx shore, the city has used Hart Island for decades as a final resting place for deceased New Yorkers whose bodies were not claimed by loved ones. Inmates, under the direction of the Corrections Department, are recruited to dig graves and inter the dead there; they’re generally paid pennies on the dollar, by modern wage standards, for this task.
Reuters published on Thursday aerial photos showing workers building graves on Hart Island days after the de Blasio Administration indicated that Hart Island might be used for the temporary burial of unclaimed coronavirus fatalities.
But on Friday, de Blasio declared on Twitter that “[t]here will be no mass burials on Hart Island,” nor is there a likelihood for such a need. The city and state have reported a flattening of the upward coronavirus curve over the past week.
“Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity,” the mayor wrote. “We do not anticipate temporary burials on Hart Island except for the unclaimed. Whenever we lose someone and there is a family member or a friend, here in New York or around the world, who wants to make burial arrangements, we hold remains until they are ready. Days, weeks, months—it doesn’t matter. COVID-19 has not changed that.”
De Blasio said the city has “brought in help from the federal government” to help families of coronavirus victims make proper funeral arrangements. But he acknowledged that the city is losing “more people without families or friends to bury them privately,” which means that those who are unclaimed will be interred on Hart Island “with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide.”
The mayor also seemed to take a shot at the press for publicizing the Hart Island images.
“We shouldn’t sensationalize the suffering and loss of our neighbors,” de Blasio tweeted. “We should pray for them and keep them in our hearts. And let’s all remain committed to saving each and every life we can in the days ahead.”
More than a million people are interred in Hart Island. A 2016 New York Times profile of the potter’s field documents the island’s extensive history, and the sorrowful way a number of the forgotten dead wound up in repose there.