A Young Man Lost in an Unmarked Grave
I remember him as a slender, young man who had a shyness too painful to view. Quiet, soft-spoken and often wordless in anyone’s presence, he was in and out of my life quickly when I was a young child. I knew he was related to a man who would enter our family through marriage, but that was all.
Absent at the wedding and unrepresented in any of the many, many family photos taken over the years at homes and venues, he seemed to fade out of existence. No one ever spoke of him, no evidence of his life could be seen anywhere. It was as though he never had walked the face of this earth. A ghost of a person whose ether had evaporated for want of the energy of a supportive family instead of one that wished the shame could be magically whipped away .
The “magic,” I would discover many years later in my early adulthood, was supplied by a distant psychiatric hospital for the “criminally insane” and it was there that his existence and personhood were further expunged. He had been
buried in everyone’s memory and, over the years, the grass of memory would cover him up even more heartily. No whisper of that name could be given life, no simple bit of remembrance was ever offered. There was an empty piece in a family who refused to notice the space left by his absence.
Who regretted his absence? Who cried when he was wrenched away by the burly policemen who believed he had the strength of 10 men? Who wondered what he was doing, if he could or would come out? Where was the love that must have existed before this inauspicious exit? What had become of any bit of clothing, keepsakes or whatnot? Did someone have a valise, a chest of drawers, a trunk or a small photo? I never knew then and would never know now.
Asking about him when I reached adulthood resulted in an abstract of a response. He had hallucinated, tried to kill his mother with a kitchen knife and was sent away to the hospital. End of story. Asking for more information only resulted in being faced with a blank stare that told me there was to be nothing more forthcoming.
Years later, working at a huge psychiatric hospital, I overheard a conversation between volunteers engaged in a new project of which I was unaware; attaching names to the unmarked graves in the hospital cemetery across the street. How many were there? No one was sure. Where were the records? They’d have to try to find out. Were there any relatives that could or should be contacted? No one knew. How had they died? Again, no information there.
The hospital, for years, had a fully functioning operating room that utilized the modern techniques then in vogue; sterilization, organ removal, tooth removal, lobotomy and, I’m sure, a variety of others. One fact that caused me to stop in my tracks was the assumption that anyone with schizophrenia could feel pain. They were taken to the OR and given, I would assume some form of anesthesia (probably Thorazine) and then told to get off the OR table and walk back to the recovery room. Do you find this a bit more than barbaric? I do.
Closer to Manhattan Island a special field was set up for those who were unidentified bodies found on the streets, in the rivers or anywhere else. They were nameless men and women marked on a death index sheet kept by New York City that contained some cryptic note about where they were found and an approximate age and sex. After some brief examination, the bodies would be sent over to Potter’s Field where prisoners, paid 50 cents an hour, would dig huge trenches in which to pile them. And then it was over.
Someone’s child had lived and died alone and then they were buried alone by strangers in a nameless grave. How had it come to be, then, that New York City
has decided that Hart’s Island should no longer be almost inaccessible and would now be a park with an appropriate place for the nameless? A filmmaker has produced “Hart Island: An American Cemetery” to uncover its gloomy past and present.
As I worked as a volunteer on a genealogy project, I found myself wondering where he might be. Was it possible that he died and was buried on the island? A bit of research confirmed my suspicions. There is only one relative left. The rest of his family has died and the one remaining has severe dementia. His children, much like the man’s siblings and mother, wish to remain distanced from that most horrible of scourges, schizophrenia.
The end of a sad and sorry journey may be at an end and the young man I knew may, at last, have his place in the world.