New York State Funeral Directors Association

Several positive actions were taken on behalf of New York State’s forgotten dead in 2017 – steps that begin to restore dignity to the lives of 19th Century citizens who played an important role as early residents of the Empire State.

Some who were dug up for development, were formally recognized and re-buried.

Others, who were buried without markers and forgotten for decades, were given back their names and memorialized.

And some whose families in some cases didn’t know where they were buried, will finally get the respect of a visit from family.

These steps forward were taken at the University at Buffalo, at the former Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes and in relation to Hart Island – New York City’s infamous “Potter’s Field.”

A lot can be said about what wasn’t done with regard to the deceased in the late-1800s and later – but steps in the right direction towards honoring those who came before us are worth recognizing.

  • The University at Buffalo ended a nine-year project in October with a funeral for 372 people who were dug up during construction. The educational institution won the support of a judge who approved the disinterment, study, storage and ultimate displacement of these individuals. These people were residents of the Erie County Poorhouse, part of which now makes up the college campus. One of the college’s goals of several years of studying the remains of these people was to find out who they were, but that effort was unsuccessful. These people will remain nameless. However, there are an estimated 3,000 more dead in the ground there – and the Poorhouse project led to a new “final” resting place for the deceased. Remains of these 372 people were buried in Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island and more space is available there any more people disinterred in what everyone in that area should know, by now, was once a cemetery for the destitute who didn’t survive long enough to get out of this poorhouse. May they all rest in peace.
  • The Willard Psychiatric Center in New York’s Finger Lakes region was the focus of efforts to name the thousands of people who died there, and many of them – buried in nearby Holy Cross Cemetery – were honored with a granite memorial. Before then, only the gravedigger who buried people there was named. A committee petitioned the state and eventually won the right to identify the residents there – their identities were being withheld due to privacy issues and the stigma of mental illness. In October, a local newspaper detailed a memorial service held at the cemetery to honor 96 of the former center’s roughly 6,000 residents. This percentage of people are no longer nameless. May these individuals – and the thousands of others who remain publically nameless – all rest in peace.
  • Hart Island – a burial ground in The Bronx, holds some 1 million graves dug by inmates and was off-limits to anybody but prisoners and state officials up until a few years ago. The efforts of concerned individuals and a class-action lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties led to a settlement between New York City and the NYCLU that allowed family members to visit the island. The agreement allowed for 50 family members to visit each month. In early 2017, that agreement was modified – expanding the number of visits to 70. They’ve also allowed for family members to get a photograph from grave site visits. Words from the NYCLU’s attorney in the case, Christopher Dunn, published on the organization’s website, put a meaningful description on this development. “Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial, and this increase in gravesite visitation is one more step towards honoring the memory of people buried there,” Dunn says on the ACLU website. There’s even a Hart Island page on the city’s Department of Corrections website – you can take a look and search the database to see if any of your relatives are there.

These are but three place in New York State’s vast territory where hundreds of thousands of people are buried, many without markers and nameless.

There were dozens of public facilities throughout the state where similar activity took place, and likely many more burial grounds people walk upon every day that aren’t even recognized as burial grounds.

Nevertheless, with the assistance of citizens, organizations and funeral directors, New York State is taking strides towards providing dignity and respect to so many who are buried and unrecognized.

EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association