According to The New York Times, New York is unique among American cities in how it disposes of the dead considered to be unclaimed: interment on a lonely island, off-limits to the public, by a crew of prison inmates who get paid 50 cents an hour.
In the course of an investigation into Hart Island burials, it was revealed that bodies that had been donated to the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine ended up in mass graves on Staten Island. The graves are not the 3-by-7 foot plots typical of other cemeteries, but the mass graves begin as trenches, 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep. “Buried by the score in wide, deep pits, the Hart Island dead seem to vanish – and so does the explanation for how they came to be there,” reports the Times.
In cases described in the Times report, the donors had signed forms that promised cremation and the disposal of their ashes by the medical school “in an appropriate and dignified manner.” When this practice of mass burial was revealed, it left surviving family members and friends shocked.
Most medical schools no longer claim corpses from the city morgue due to the rise of private body donations. The city has still offered at least 4,000 bodies to medical or mortuary programs in the past 10 years. Records show, more than 1,877 were selected for use by first-year medical students, before a belated Hart Island burial. In 2014, the city temporarily halted this “flow of cadavers” in 2014 after the medical examiner’s office was involved in a series of blunders, including lost or mixed up bodies. However, the practice resumed last spring when a mortuary school sued, the Times reports.