THE CITY CEMETERY
[From NYC Dept. of Correction newsletter The Pen December 1978 issue.]
Inmates prepare pine coffins for burial.
When Anthony Squicciarino, retired in 1970, he was in his twenty-second year with the Department and his seventeenth year as the commander of the City Cemetery on Hart Island.
"It was the northeasterly that made Squicciarino retire," says Roscoe Jefferson, the Correction Officer who assumed command of the cemetery from Squicciarino.
Jefferson speaks of the northeast wind from eight winters of experience, as if it had the force of a striking personality.
When he points past the graves, over Long Island Sound, in the direction the wind blows, he seems to be searching for its familiar face on the horizon.
"This is the coldest place I've ever been in New York City," Jeff said.
"If it rains in winter and then you have a week of sub-zero temperatures, forget about the burying."
Burying the bodies of those who died indigent or unbefriended is Jeff's business.
He estimates that in the eight years he has worked on Hart Island, his crew has buried over 28,000 of them.
"The first time you come here you feel a little funny," remembers Sonny Bowers, the Correction Officer who, for seven years, has shared the cemetery detail with Jeff.
"You realize there are bodies in those boxes. But after working here for a while, all you see is the box."
The unspoken, yet understood seriousness of purpose at the City Cemetery is the officers contribution to the undisturbed serenity of the Island.
One is aware of the way the wind sweeps through the weeds, and the waters of the Sound surge toward the shore. It is a liberation of sorts for officers and inmates, used to spending long hours locked in a jail, to gaze out over the ocean and to try to conceive of its immensity.
"As a C.O. you're not often left on your own to initiate. But coming up here I feel a sense of accomplishment," Jeff says. "We're on our own and there's no two ways about it.
Maybe it's that spirit of independence that causes Sonny Bowers to look up at the blue autumn sky as he walks along the rim of a burial trench, and to say to no one in particular, "Damn, it's a nice day for golf."
Even though Bowers and Jefferson are the only officers on the Island, and they must guard a work detail that ranges from 18 to 29 inmates depending on the workload, security is not a problem.
The cemetery detail is considered a choice assignment by the inmates and they must volunteer for it. More than one has said to Jeff on the final day of his sentence, "Save me a spot, Mr. Jefferson. I'll be back."
"I don't understand it," Jeff wonders out loud, "If these guys worked as hard on the outside as they do here, I don't see why they would ever come back. These guys produce. They really work."
One inmate explained his productivity this way: "If you've got a lot of frustration, you can take it out here. You've got fresh air and a chance to exercise."
Tongue in cheek, another inmate expressed his satisfaction with the work. detail, stating "The dead don't mess with you. It's the living you've got to worry about."
Bodies in pine boxes are delivered from the morgue and the Medical Examiner's Off ice twice a week, on the same ferry boat, the Michael Cosgrove, that the officers and inmates travel to the Island.
Each box is assigned a registered number that is etched on its side, and then placed in a registered plot. One hundred fifty boxes are buried in each seventy-five foot plot. Since bodies are reclaimed at the rate of three a week, and by law, may be claimed for up to ten years after they are buried, the registration and burial process must be meticulous.
There are as many reasons for disinterments as there are bodies reclaimed. There is the story of the man buried over thirty years when his son struck oil and wanted to give him a private burial, or the unknown man found to be a veteran of World War I.
Until shortly before his death he had sent small donations to a group of French nuns who nursed him back to health during the war. When his letters and contributions stopped coming, the nuns investigated to find out what happened to him. They learned he died penniless and was buried on Hart Island. So they paid to have his remains brought to France and reburied in their convent.
C.O. Jefferson tells the recent story of a Swedish women who traced her mother to the City Cemetery. She was coming to America and wanted to visit the grave.
"So we located the exact place where her mother rested, cut the grass around it, put flowers there, and made it look presentable. She was very pleased with it," Jeff recollects.
After eight years at the City Cemetery, Roscoe Jefferson sits back in his cramped closet of an office and he says, "I personally feel a deeper sense of conviction working here. I don't feel as terrified to die as I once did. I know and accept that it must come."