Lost in the pandemic

THE SUN HAS BARELY RISEN ABOVE THE GLASSY surface of Long Island Sound. A breeze sweeps over an island half a mile from the Bronx where 15 workers watch a backhoe remove the layer of soil that separates a mass grave from the outside world. There are 1,165 identical pine caskets stacked three high, two wide in this football-field-size pit. The men are here to find and dig up casket No. 40-3.

The backhoe churns up a layer of gray sand, a sign that the caskets are close. Already sweating in their hazmat suits, the workers climb 10 ft. down into the hole, shovels in their gloved hands. The grave is more than two months old. The smell seeps through their protective masks. As they dig, three coffins come into view, identifying numbers bored into the pine at one end. “Four-zero-dash-three,” one of the men shouts over the noise of the diesel engine. They set about retrieving the box, and its occupant, from the anonymous earth.

Hart Island is a graveyard of last resort. Since 1869, New York City has owned and operated this potter’s field—the largest in the country. City workers put unidentified or unclaimed corpses in simple wooden coffins, load them onto a ferry and entomb them in trenches across the island. The homeless, indigent and stillborn all lie within eyesight of the hyperkinetic, high-rolling inhabitants of the Manhattan skyscrapers across the water. “Hart Island is like a shadow of New York City,” says Justin von Bujdoss, 45, the cemetery’s chaplain. “It reflects the lives of people who live on the margins—the homeless, the sickly, the neglected, the forgotten and overworked.” Over a century and a half, more than a million people have been buried in unmarked graves on the island, including from past epidemics like tuberculosis, the 1918 flu and AIDS.

“No one lives their lives believing it will end here,” von Bujdoss says.

But nine months into the pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 Americans, one lesson is clear: no one escapes the virus. It infects paupers and Presidents alike. Even those who don’t get it have been affected as the disease

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