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The Tragedy of Dying Alone and Unclaimed

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In mass graves near NYC, the forgotten are buried together.

The Story of Hart Island

Right now, on Hart Island, off-shore from New York City, 500 unclaimed bodies — victims of the Coronavirus — are being buried in mass graves, a move that’s essential because of the number of deaths occurring each day. Trenches are dug and hundreds of plain boxes are stacked inside the narrow, damp ditches.

What’s happening now has been happening for more than 150 years here.

Since 1968, Hart Island has served as a public cemetery, burying the bodies of the 1918 Spanish Flu victims and the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s. The island is closed to the public and bears the stigma of interring the bodies of society’s outcasts: the impoverished and unwanted.

I follow the news of the pandemic on a daily basis. I could deal with the number of cases, the projections of future deaths, the social-distancing and restrictions that came with the news. Ultimately, it was the word “unclaimed” that destroyed me. Not that people died alone, but that no one claimed them afterward.

Of course, my heart aches for people whose relatives are dying in critical care wards and nursing homes. It’s a horrible thing not to be with your loved one to hold their hand, put salve on their lips, or whisper words of love before a final breath is exhaled.

But in those cases, loved ones were with the dying patient in spirit if not in body. They were thinking, remembering, and praying for the ill while they struggled. Friends and relatives valued the lives of the isolated and dying even though they couldn’t be with them when they drew their last breaths.

The dying were alone, but not unloved.

The tragedy of living so no one cares when you’re g0ne

Sadder still are all those people who died with no family or friends to care about them. Alone and unacknowledged. Not mourned. Not missed.

I understand why some patients may not have been mourned. Maybe they had done too much damage to have anyone care. Maybe their actions had obliterated the bonds of family love. Maybe they lived their lives in criminal activity, drug addiction, or mental illness, away from societal norms.

But 500 unclaimed people placed in mass graves on Hart Island? Some of them were from families that couldn’t afford a burial, or who had no family left, but how many were people who simply hadn’t done enough good deeds or kind acts to cause someone to care?

That one striking statistic — 500 unclaimed bodies — spoke of lost potential and wasted lives.

The loss of so many people whose very existence meant nothing to the world feels like a massive tragedy, too.

Those unclaimed bodies made me re-evaluate

Just a few months ago, I might have wondered what happened to us as a society that we care so little. I might have believed that we are people who ignore the problems of others. I might even have thought that the only thing that matters to most people is their own survival and they don’t give a damn about what happens to anyone else.

But today, two months into the Coronavirus pandemic, there is no doubt about the basic goodness of people. They DO care. You only have to look at the power of human compassion at work every day during this crisis to see that thousands of people are unselfishly helping others.

If I ever had any doubt before, my belief that mankind is basically good has been reinforced.

But another belief has been emphasized as well, painfully pricking my consciousness with the pin of urgency.

I need to do more to touch lives TODAY. Tomorrow’s too late.

Carpe Diem

Recently, I re-watched the movie Dead Poet’s Society. The words of the schoolmaster to his boys resonate: “Carpe diem: Seize the day.” As the teacher so vividly illustrates to his students, you are no different than those who went before you. You, too, who seem so vigorous, will one day end up as dead and forgotten as the faded pictures of the alumni that cover the walls of the trophy room.

So will I.

So carpe diem. Seize the day.

While I’ve always been kind with words, I haven’t done enough good deeds. I’ve thought about volunteering, but never made the effort to give of my time. This crisis, and the number of deaths, has been a wake-up call to me.

Now is the time for action, not talk. Now is the time to make my life mean something by helping others. One small deed at a time.

My vow is to make a difference. Touch someone else’s life with a phone call or a note. Live, not just a little, but a lot — laughing and enjoying the moments instead of worrying. Encourage someone. Help a neighbor. Hug my children, my spouse, my dog more often. Reach out to those who are struggling by volunteering instead of just thinking about it.

I’ll seize today so that when I’m gone, I won’t be forgotten.

I’ll live today so that when I die, my life will have mattered enough that someone will claim my body and celebrate my soul.


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