The Most Unusual Cemetery in America: New York City’s Hart Island and the Heart of Easter’s Lord

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The Lord has a special place in his heart for those whom the world forgets. For the anonymous. For the rejected.

Over a million people are buried there in unmarked graves. Only one, the first child in New York City who died of AIDS, rests in an isolated plot. All others are interred in long trenches. Cheap, pine coffins are stacked three high, two across for adults; five high, twenty across, for infants.

This is not your typical cemetery.

The 131 acres of Hart Island in New York City are a womb of soil, pregnant with mortality. Cradled on this island are the remains of a largely unremembered population. One third of them are babies, many of them stillborn. Others are men and women who died alone, whose families could not be located. Still others, dying in poverty, were impoverished even in death of an individual grave that surviving family members could visit.

Once a month, a ferry takes mourners across the Long Island South to the island. No cameras or cell phones are allowed. Guards escort the grieving. Visitors can see where inmates from Rikers Island are burying the deceased. There they stand beside trenches where the remains of those they loved are slowly turning to dust.

As such, Hart Island may very well be the most special place on earth to God.

In an effort to shed more light on the lives of the deceased, the Traveling Cloud Museum was begun in concert with the Hart Island Project. Friends or family members can search archives for the names of departed loved ones, then add photos, videos, or memories to preserve the histories of the dead. You can read some of their stories here. It is an endeavor beautiful in intent, but fraught with difficulty. The truth is that all we know about most of them is a name, date of death, and the corpse-crowded trench in which they are interred.

Hart island is a heart-breaking plot of ground.
Tears of memories stream down the face of time.
Once colorful lives devolve into a mass of gray.
Bones of strangers mix and mingle with others.
Death is literally inches beneath every step you take.

As such, Hart Island may very well be the most special place on earth to God.

The Lord has a special place in his heart for those whom the world forgets. For the anonymous. For the rejected. Every day Jesus walks the length and breadth of these 131 acres, over the mass, unmarked graves of Hart Island. He is intimately acquainted with every person. He can tell you exactly who is buried where, when they died, even the moment they were conceived. He can relate exactly how many tears they shed in the course of their lifetimes. He knows how that leg was broken in a high school football game; how that rib was cracked by a drunken, abusive father; how those hearts were broken by cancer, divorce, or inescapable poverty. He is the creator and father of every one on Hart Island. It is his children who are buried here.

On the day of he stared death in the eye, these children were on the heart and mind of Jesus, ages before they were even born. It was worth it:
every skin-splitting crack of the whip
every flesh-penetrating pounding of the nail
every rivulet of blood trailing down his face.
It was all worth it. The God of compassion would it have no other way.

He gave a reality to Hart Island that is hidden from the eyes of man. Beneath the veil of mortality-soaked soil, beneath the veneer of death and loss, there lurks the power of an indestructible life. His life. His resurrection. Christ’s Hart Island was a borrowed tomb near Jerusalem. The king of kings was laid to rest a pauper. He rose to lavish life upon the world.

The Easter Lord walks among the graves of Hart Island not as a grieving parent, but a victorious Lord. The feet once spiked to a cross traverse graves in which lie the bodies of those who were marked with the sign of the cross in their baptisms. They died to death before they died in life. They were washed into the victory of Christ’s resurrection. In him they live, even though they died.

Hart Island holds their bones, but Christ holds fast their souls. In him they are more alive now than they ever were on earth. And in him, one day, one glorious day, their bodies too will leave this sad abode of anonymity to be greeted by name by the Lord of life. Fully bodied once more. Fully blooded once more. Fully glorified as they bear the image and likeness of the glorified Savior. On the last day, the womb of Hart Island will birth forth the beatified bodies of innumerable saints.

Hart Island is a special place to the Lord who never forgets those who are his own. He never forgets them. He never forgets you. Every tear he counts. Every scar he kisses. Every wound he heals. He needs no gravestone to know where your remains will be, for you will remain ever in his arms, even as your body sleeps in the tomb, awaiting its resurrection.

You are remembered, you are loved, and you are safe, now and forever, in the heart of Easter’s Lord.