Huddled Masses: Death and Citizenship in New York City
How can citizenship survive death? At Hart Island, New York City’s ‘massed’ grave cemetery for its unclaimed, unknown, and poor, the dead have historically been excluded from the realm of ordinary posthumous citizenship expected by their fellow New Yorkers. However, activists, relatives, and politicians are currently attempting to pull the Hart Island dead back into that realm. Their efforts have been complicated by multiple processes, including trench burials, isolation, penal control, lack of visitor access, and an absence of memorialization, all of which mark those buried on Hart Island as belonging to particular categories of people, less than full citizens. The deliberate nature of these processes indicates that the dead do not simply fall outside the bounds of ordinary posthumous citizenship but must be methodically placed outside them. This thesis shows how Hart Island’s practices have been made ordinary through more than 150 years of systemized bureaucracy, so can appear unremarkable to those most familiar with them. Yet people often react with great discomfort when they learn about Hart Island because it says something powerful about their city and about New Yorkers. I argue that for many, it juxtaposes painfully with their city’s compelling mythology of exceptional inclusion and liberal values by recalling a history of brutal disparity. I examine how, motivated by the social anxiety that Hart Island provokes, several projects have begun to recover Hart Island’s dead from their non-citizenship and re-embed them into the realm of normal posthumous relations. This includes political moves such as replacing the government department that manages the island (switching from Correction to Parks), pledging to increase public access, and reclaiming the dead rhetorically as New Yorkers, a term locals use as a gloss for citizens. What do New Yorkers understand as normal posthumous relations, and how are Hart Island’s dead excluded from them? What can this exclusion explain about perceptions of normal citizenship for the dead? If massed burial is usually prompted by exceptional circumstances, how does Hart Island’s very ordinariness trouble people? To answer these questions, I draw on anthropological literature on citizenship, death, memorialization, stigma, and social memory; and on ethnographic data gathered over fifteen months of fieldwork across New York City’s five boroughs, including Hart Island, and online during lockdowns. I argue that it is through memorialization that citizenship survives death, and throughout the thesis, I scrutinize the implications of this claim. The first two chapters contextualize these questions within the early Covid-19 pandemic and American deathcare, explaining my concepts of ‘ordinary posthumous citizenship’ and ‘normal posthumous relations’ and exploring how they are enacted in New York and the US. The following chapters examine stigma within the framework of commemorated citizenship, from talk about the Hart Island dead as New Yorkers to the shock when New Yorkers learn about Hart Island. In the final two chapters, I turn from this broader analysis to focus on two distinctive communities, contrasting views of those who find Hart Island’s neglect appropriate with others vigorously pursuing projects of destigmatization. Hart Island’s characteristic and mundane neglect, and the destigmatization projects this has prompted both seem to crystallize around how – or whether – to memorialize the Hart Island dead. I conclude by examining what kinds of memorialization are possible here.