How we treat paupers and the less fortunate at the final, most important event of life: death, can tell us a great deal about society. A recent article in the New York Times gave great detail about Hart Island and the disposal of paupers in New York City. Unfortunately, many buried in Hart Island are receive little respect for their remains. Hart Island burials include individuals donating their bodies to science. When the local university or medical examiner finishes with the remains, they become part of the anonymous population shipped off and interred. Additional internments at Hart Island include prisoners whose families refused to claim remains.
Burial at Hart Island translates into a large trench, pine boxes stacked four or five on top of each other and the trenches filled in. The city keeps a record of the interments. Individuals can be identified by their trench number, along with several hundred others. But identification doesn’t really matter because Hart Island is closed to the public. Paupers have been buried like this for centuries
In contrast to this, paupers in small communities were often buried at the County expense. In Atlanta, GA., before 1900, the county commission, every few years, would negotiate the price for caskets and burial. In the South, race played a significant role even in death. Paupers buried in Oakland Cemetery in the 1880s, a white man received a pine box and the grave digger paid $5. A black man was buried in a cloth sack, and a $1 fee paid.
Up north race was less important. Residency, however, was an important consideration. In Sherburne County, MN, in 1886, resident poor received a pine box for burial, transients were buried in a cloth sack. Several local residents, in 1886, complained the transients were often Civil War Veterans and should be shown greater respect in death. This argument did not sway the officials, burials for transients remained $1.
In contrast to the 1880s, in a more recent time, 1917, an unknown woman was found on the banks of the Mississippi River. The fees for a “burial box, casket wagon, and burial” was $48. Quite a significant sum at the time.
The local newspapers reinforced the importance of residency. In 1906, the Sherburne County Star News told the story of William Nelson who died in Princeton, MN. The community straddles the county line between Mille Lacs County and Sherburne County. “There is some question as to whether or not he ever acquired a residence in Princeton, if he did, then Mille Lacs County will have to stand the bill, but if he still held his residence in Sherburne County, they will have to make good.”
Whether in the big city or the small community treatment of the dead reveals a great deal about the community. Unfortunately, whether in the 1800s or in the twenty-first century, money and expenses remain a serious consideration in caring for the unidentified dead.
ed note: Paupers' grave do not normally have markers of any kind. the photo included in this story is a generic photo of Atlanta's Crestlawn Cemetery.