Infant Burials Depict Their Lives: Brief, Crowded, Anonymous : Potter’s Field: A Tale of Life, Death

Times Staff Writer

The tiny pine boxes were neatly stacked, five deep and five across, in Hart Island’s sand and clay. The long mass grave, which ultimately will hold 1,000 such coffins, bore no names or monument.

No funeral was held, no mourners could visit. The only memorial was a dogeared, handwritten ledger of the latest arrivals:

“Baby Girl Saturn--3 hours”

“Boy Samuel--1 day”


The infants were among New York’s poor, and their burial by convicts last week in a 60-foot-long grave at the city’s Potter’s Field cemetery was much like their lives: brief, crowded and anonymous.


It is a way of death here. Between 1981 and 1984, according to a recent study, nearly half of all the newborn infants who died in New York City were buried in this paupers’ graveyard. Nearly one-third of all Potter’s Field burials were infants.

Kept ‘Respectable’

“We keep it neat, clean and as respectable as we can, given that we’re dealing with something most people don’t want to know about,” said state prisons Capt. Eugene Ruppert, in charge of about 35 prisoners who live on the island and bury the city’s indigent, unclaimed and unidentified.

About 47% of the live-birth babies who died before age 1 in the four-year period--3,070 of 6,527--were buried in Potter’s Field, according to a study of city Department of Health records by the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. The figure does not include fetal deaths or stillbirths.

By contrast, less than 3% of New Yorkers over age 20 who died--1,811 of 71,808 in 1984--were interred in the island cemetery’s 50 well-groomed acres of dusty sand flats, broom sedge and weeping willows.

City health officials say poverty isn’t the only explanation for the indigent infant burial rate. Some parents do not wish to spend thousands of dollars for a newborn’s funeral, officials say. In other cases, hospitals seek to ease distraught parents’ pain by offering to dispose of the body. “Often what happens is the parents just don’t claim the babies,” said Abigail Abysalh, spokesperson for the city’s Bellevue Hospital.

But some children’s advocacy groups contend that the infant burials at Potter’s Field are a grim reminder of rising hunger, homelessness and health-care problems in a city where an estimated 40% of all children live in families below the federal poverty line.


Sell Blood to Buy Food

“It shocks me but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Dr. Anna Lou Dehavenon, who recently documented increased begging by poor families in a report for the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee. “I have reports of fathers selling their blood to get money for food.”

“The soup pantries and food kitchens are definitely seeing more children,” said Liz Krueger, associate director of the Community Food Resource Center. She said the city’s 350 emergency food providers distributed about 500,000 meals last year, twice the figure of 1984.

“We certainly know the number of homeless families has quadrupled since 1981,” said Suzanne Trazoff, spokeswoman for the city’s Human Resources Administration. She said the city now estimates there are more than 10,000 homeless children.

Dana Hughes, a senior health specialist with the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund, said nearly 20% of New York mothers received little or no pre-natal care in 1983, compared to about 5% of mothers nationwide.

“There’s a virtual crisis in New York on child health-care issues,” said Hughes. New York ranks 10th worst in infant mortality rates among the nation’s 22 largest cities, she said.

Denied Dignity of Death

Judy Berck, author of the Coalition for the Homeless study, blamed city policy that offers $250 to indigent families to help bury their dead as long as they can obtain a funeral for under $600. She said the policy denies families any dignity of death.

“Basically, if the family can’t come up with the money for a funeral and burial, the body is just dispatched to a ditch, to a trench, and that’s it,” said Berck. “They can’t visit the grave. They can’t mourn at a service. They get no consolation, no solace.”

New York area funeral costs average about $2,500, and cemetery costs average $1,000, according to Randall Archibald, attorney for the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Assn., an industry group.

“These people have no one to go to bat for them,” Archibald said. “That’s been part of the problem. I suppose the industry hasn’t helped.”

The $250 grant has not been increased since it was established in 1967. The city supports a bill now before the state Legislature that would double the burial grant to $500.

The Coalition for the Homeless has urged the city to raise the grant to $900 and allow access for mourners to visit the graves.

National mortuary industry officials say New York appears alone in its burial of indigent dead. The city has used a Potter’s Field--the name comes from the New Testament--since the 1700s. Various sites have included what is now Washington Square in Greenwich Village, an area behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, and land around the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Public Barred

The city selected Hart Island, which lies half a mile off the Bronx in Long Island Sound, in 1869, and more than three-quarters of a million people have been interred there since. Because it is used as a prison work camp, and is isolated by water, the public is barred from visiting. A Catholic Mass, said once a year, is the only service.

In Chicago, the city contracts with local funeral homes to bury the poor in local cemeteries. Cook County, which includes Chicago, also buries about 350 unclaimed bodies a year in unmarked graves in suburban Homewood Gardens cemetery. A minister gives a funeral service, and mourners may attend, according to a spokesman for the county medical examiner’s office.

2,000 Cremated in L.A.

In Los Angeles, about 2,000 bodies of the indigent or unclaimed are cremated each year at a county facility, according to Andrew Bliss, associate administrative director of medical records for the Los Angeles County Medical Center.

“A significant number of baby deaths are handled as indigent,” Bliss said. Although no service is provided, a chapel is available at the crematory for mourners, and families may take the ashes.

There is no chapel at New York’s Potter’s Field. But a rough-hewn granite cross stands near a dozen prisoners who sweat under a blazing sun as they shovel dirt over plain pine boxes.

“He Calleth His Own by Name,” it reads.