I covered the role of Hart Island in caring for the unclaimed dead and its new significance amidst COVID-19, for National Geographic:
The burial process hasn’t changed much since the late 1800s. An 1890 photo by Jacob Riis shows coffins being lowered into a trench, and an aerial video today shows a similar scene.
It’s been the practice that every week, staff and eight inmates from nearby Rikers Island prison have come to carry out the burials, stacking coffins three deep in trenches large enough to hold up to 162 for adults and a thousand for infants and fetal remains. Numbers and sometimes names are written in heavy black marker on the pine coffins and entered into a register, so that family members can claim their loved ones later.
This month, due to a spike in coronavirus cases at Rikers Island, the city began hiring contract workers—who wear hazmat suits—to bury the dead.
Read more at National Geographic.