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CV19 and Historic Cemeteries

LaurenLauren Piccinini is a Master’s student with the University of South Florida. Her area of concentration is American History with a specialization regarding American Prisoners of War.

CV19 and Historic Cemeteries

Shortly after Andersonville National Historic Site began conducting virtual tours, the Andersonville National Cemetery announced that they would be limiting visitation to the graveyard to just the weekdays. Then they announced that burials, while remaining available for eligible veterans, they would be done without military honors or a committal service. Additionally, no more than ten family members would be permitted to attend the internment.[1] Meanwhile, Arlington Nation Cemetery is still permitting military honors, but limiting other honors and procedures. Additionally, Arlington is requesting that guests, limited to those with Family Passes or those interning family members, wear masks and/or avoid leaving their vehicles during ceremonies.[2] Within days of these announcements, The Washington Post broke the news that New York City was burying unclaimed Coronavirus patients in mass graves on Hart Island.[3]

Hart Island, a mile long island off of the Bronx, has a long history of unclaimed or indigent burials. Dating back to the Civil War Era, the island is home to Civil War soldiers, the homeless, AIDS patients, and stillborn babies. Due to the mass infection and mortality rate in New York, authorities have struggled with how to deal with the large amount of unclaimed deceased Coronavirus victims. Naturally, Hart Island welcomed these unfortunate souls with open arms. New York is not a stranger to mass burials during previous pandemics; Central Park, then known as Seneca Village, was used as an internment site for victims of the Cholera epidemic of 1849.[4] While the idea of mass burials seems like an antiquated practice, it is one of the few options available, especially since scientists have discovered that the virus can spread after death.[5]

1: Workers in Hazmat Suits Burying COVID Victims, Hart Island, New York

As the worldwide death toll surpassed 164,000, the question of disposing of the deceased sparked a troublesome debate. Are these individuals granted the same rights as everyone else, or should they be quarantined to their own section of a mass grave, identical to the treatment of AIDS victims during the 1980s? The answer appears to be somewhere in the middle and depends on the next of kin’s abilities to provide funeral services.  If the family is able to afford the funeral costs, the decedent is released into their custody through a funeral home; however, if they are unable to afford these services or aren’t aware of the death, the decedent is interned in a mass grave. New York is not alone in this struggle; countries, such as Iran and Italy, have also implemented mass burials and suspended religious ceremonies. Iran has since dug a mass grave so large that it is visible from space. China, where the virus ravaged the population, ordered that any person who died from complications from the virus be immediately cremated without a farewell ceremony.[6]

2: Mass Burial Site, Qom, Iran

While the total loss of life is continuing to grow, it is to be seen how the treatment of the dead will alter and when this ordeal will cease. Presently, the measures being taken at Hart Island is limited to New York City and other epicenters of this virus like Iran and Italy. Other institutions, such as national cemeteries, are taking precautions and temporarily changing procedures in the interest of the public safety. As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has promoted, these cemeteries are encouraging the use of masks, social distancing, and limiting the number of persons in a gathering. Only time will tell if individual burial plots will continue in this pandemic or if mass graves will become the new normal.

[1]“Alerts & Conditions.” National Park Service, April 3, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2020.

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions.” Arlington National Cemetery, April 5, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2020.

[3] Yuan, Jada, “Burials on Hart Island, where New York’s unclaimed lie in mass graves, have risen fivefold.” The Washington Post, April 16, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2020.

[4] Martin, Douglas, “A Village Dies, A Park is Born” The New York Times, January 31, 1997. Accessed April 19, 2020.

[5] Baldwin, Angela N., Ph.D., “Coronavirus’ reach from beyond the grave: Deceased body transmits COVID-19” ABC Action News, April 17, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2020.

[6] Woodward, Aylin & Mosher, Dave, “Sobering Photos Reveal How Countries are Dealing with the Dead Left by the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Business Insider, April 13, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2020.

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