In 2016, Randy Lee wrote about artist Melissa Hunt's Hart Island Project and the forgotten history of the island for Intercourse Magazine. In light of COVID-19, Lee recently reflected on his research, grief, and how we memoralize our loved ones. His original 2016 article is included after his revised essay.

It’s April 14, 2020—a headline on Al Jazeera’s website reads—“Dozens buried in New York mass grave as coronavirus deaths surge. New York is burying some of its dead in a mass grave as its daily coronavirus death toll reaches grim new records.”

As of right now, 25,143 people in the US have died. I don’t know what to say.

In 2015, I started writing about Melinda Hunt’s “Hart Island Project” and the “Traveling Cloud Museum”—

I started writing implies I haven’t stopped—but really I’ve only just begun again—

I’m not good with time.

Only on Wednesday last week, April 8, 2020, one of my dearest friends growing up died alone in a hospital room somewhere in Chicago—it wasn’t COVD-19 that killed him. Rather it was complications arising from pancreatitis. But I want to blame COVID. Had he been feeling unwell in different circumstances, he would have gone to see the doctor before things became dire. But maybe not. I mean—his insurance situation; his work situation—and the fact that going to the doctor is a huge pain in the ass. Life in America is mostly mitigating/militating against the amount of ass pain you feel on any given day. I took a bunch of Benadryl and slept for two days. It’s Tuesday. I barely feel like a person.

It’s 2020, and I’m still trying to explain what is self-evident. I want to keep John alive for as long as possible. I’m trying to carve this into stone.

It’s 2016. Facts change in the rewriting. What felt true then feels false in 2020. The seagulls winging above the sound are nearly indistinguishable from the sky… traces of motion but no indication of direction, which feels like a pointless thing to notice.

Hart Island lies at the west end of the Long Island Sound, about 15 minutes by ferry from City Island, Bronx. The ferry captain, Mark Thompson, stands at the railing of his vessel. He’s an ad hoc tour guide. He points out things of interest to a couple from Queens. They’re civilians, aboard Captain Thompson’s Ferry to Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field. They’re dressed plainly, pants and fleeces because it’s kinda cold. There’s a mist on their faces. They squint where the captain gestures. The dismal sky corresponds with the somberness of their journey.

The ferry has a loud motor. Its belly slaps the rough water. Captain Thompson shouts above the noise, first pointing out a missile silo, then a crumbling building of some significance, then the water itself—where some boys drowned last winter, or the one before that. He's not quite sure. Just a fact worth noting.

It’s mid-morning, still 2016.

Melinda Hunt is an artist—and while Captain Thompson is ferrying the couple to Hart Island— she’s in her office in Peekskill, NY, and she’s pointing out her window across the street to a row of parking meters. “People care more about where they're going to park their cars.” She’s trying to explain the difficulty of her project—getting people to pay attention to people who have been dead and forgotten. But that’s the project. She’s been working on it the last 30 years. The Hart Island Project and The Traveling Cloud Museum…

Purchased by the city in 1869, Hart Island is the largest publicly run cemetery in the US. It’s site to an estimated 1,000,000 bodies buried in mass graves, and in 2016, for reasons of obscure municipal bureaucracy, Hart Island falls under the purview of the Department of Corrections.

The website reads: “Prior to visiting, each family member or guest should sign and submit a liability waiver by emailing a signed copy to hartisland@doc.nyc.gov, or mailing it to: NYC Department of Correction Office of Constituent and Grievance Services.”

Buried on Hart Island: New York City’s unclaimed, its indigent, and unknown. During the AIDS epidemic the first victims were buried here. Amputated limbs are buried on Hart Island too. Mix-ups. Mistaken identities. A third of all stillborn babies. In 2008, Hart Island was selected as a burial site for up to 20,000 bodies in the event of a pandemic. I’m reading from the Wikipedia.

In 2020, we’re burying the dead in mass graves on Hart Island—because the daily coronavirus death toll has exceeded our city’s ability to handle its dead…

Another way of saying this is we have exceeded our ability to handle the living…

Hart Island is called a potter’s field. A potter’s field is a cemetery for strangers, for criminals, for the unwanted or the unorthodox. It comes from the bible. After Judas sold out Jesus and killed himself—the priests used those 30 pieces of silver to buy the plot to bury him in. The land they purchased was—according to Wikipedia, “a source of potters' clay. After the clay was removed, such a site would be left unusable for agriculture and thus might as well become a graveyard for those who could not be buried in an orthodox cemetery.” The holes were already dug. Just drop the bodies in.

There’s a correspondence here, in 2016, it’s something Hunt says her project points to… this correspondence between forms, between institutions… the same department that oversees NYC jails oversees the largest potter’s fields. Strangers burying strangers. Cells and boxes. And the law dispassionately overseeing it all.

According to Hart Island Project website: Since 1980, 68,955 people have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island. The Traveling Cloud Museum is a collection of their stories.

My friend was in a coma for a week before being moved into hospice. His mom and his brother couldn’t be in the room with him as he died. His wife had to fight like crazy to be there. The nurses that were responsible for holding up the phone to his head so he could hear his mom and brother say goodbye kept getting called off as they had to handle another emergency.

The Hart Island Project website has an interactive map—where you can find stories about the dead. By clicking on a plot number you can access records of individuals buried at that location. Each person has a clock measuring how long they have been buried on the island. You can stop their clock of anonymity and restore their history by adding a story to The Traveling Cloud Museum.

When Hunt began working on the Hart Island Project, it was impossible to visit the actual island. In 2007, the Department of Corrections allowed civilians to access the island. In 2016, going to Hart Island is a lot like visiting someone in jail. It’s all tightly regulated. Interactions are guarded, watched. The human is overseen and surveilled by people with guns in gun holsters. The Department of Corrections website says, Uniformed Correction Officers will escort all groups and individuals to their designated visit sites, but will maintain a respectful distance in order to allow for a peaceful visit. In the background, convicts in white shirts and blue dickies unload pine boxes from the back of the city’s morgue-wagon.

Boxes lifted from the wagon, set into a trench, one on top of the other, like shoeboxes in a warehouse. With two guys lifting, they're not that heavy. It's like there's nothing in them. Sometimes there is nothing. And with the baby coffins, it really is like stacking shoeboxes.

It’s 2016 again. The ferry bangs into the slip on Hart Island where two men pull chains connected to old wooden headworks lifting it out of the water. At the end of the dock near a jeep painted with the DOC insignia, Cpt. Thompson stands official looking. He checks the couple’s IDs before they’re allowed to advance to the designated reflecting gazebo. He’s the interface between the unknown dead and the ID carrying living. The guide with a gun. The respectful distance.

If you think about it, he opines, the inmates on the burial detail are actually pretty lucky. During the summer especially. About 15 or so low level offenders get to spend the day outside, near the sound, the smell of grass and soil—away from all the nonsense that comes with being inside, in the yard, in general. Really, it's not so bad. They're just putting boxes in the ground. You don't necessarily have to think about what's inside the box.

I want to keep my friend alive so I remember him.  What compels someone to remember a stranger? To hurt for the past?

Hunt has made use of pretty much every medium available for the project: collaborating with photographer Joel Sternfeld, publishing and repurposing burial documentation, publishing letters from Rikers inmates who have thought about what’s inside the box.

Hunt’s practice is part advocacy group, part historical society, a forum and ongoing wake and burial service all at the same time. She helps people actually step foot on Hart Island—going through all the bureaucratic hassle some people just aren't equipped to handle. Throughout this, she's become known to the system. It was her work—with a team of lawyers—that eventually got the DOC to release its burial records. “Imagine that—for some reason, the city didn't want people to know where people were buried on Hart Island. Why?”

In 2016, she is explaining she’s at work on legislation that will transfer control of Hart Island from the Depart of Corrections to Parks and Recreation as well as the implementation of an online Hart Island cemetery.

I stopped thinking about Hart Island after I wrote this story.

In the original I included this factoid.

If a very old Arunta aborigine dies the tribe does not perform any “elaborate ceremonies.” The death of the old or the useless does not cause sorrow—or is not worthy of sorrow. When a “useful” man dies, his widow must “remain silent until a certain ceremony called the Aralkilima is performed.” She is also relocated and told to cease with her normal day-to-day routine.

In Creed, Rocky sits in a chair next to Adrian’s grave and reads her the daily paper. Tom Hanks visits Jenny’s grave in Forrest Gump in order to give her updates about their son. Americans visit graveyards to inform the dead about current events, to let the dead know they’re still somehow a part of the goings on…

The couple stares out at the field from the “reflection area.” It’s 2016. There’s this popping firecracker sound and in the distance a green tractor moving silently across their field of vision.

Randy Rodriguez Santos beat four homeless men to death in the fall of 2019. What happened to those bodies? Unless next of kin allows the body to be cremated, NY state law states the bodies have to be buried. It’s 2020. The neighborhood is mostly empty. When I look outside I can’t help but feel this small urge—to see the apocalypse… bodies piled up. Strewn everywhere.

These are passing thoughts.

In 2016, the couple visiting Hart Island sit on a wooden bench in the reflecting area. The man puts a hand on the woman’s thigh.

This is the first time I interact with them. I can’t remember if it’s the man or the woman who asks… Are you looking for someone?

The woman begins telling me her story… which begins:

Almost fifty years ago—her parents are expecting while also losing their first-born son, her brother, to kidney cancer. Her mom is eight months pregnant when her brother dies. His death triggers her dad’s heart attack. Shortly thereafter, her mom gives birth to a stillborn girl, her sister. It is all awfulness. And life. Mom and Dad suffering grief overload. Sickness and death overload. And some time during this whirlwind of hell, a nurse or social worker hands her mother paperwork. She signs. The city will take care of her baby. She doesn’t know what that means. She has no idea the remains will be buried in a mass grave she’ll never be able to visit.

Her mother is ninety years old now, coming in and out of dementia. In moments of random lucidity, she’s asking where the body of her still-born baby is. She keeps talking about it. She wants to know. It's not right not to know.

And because her mother wants to know—she wants to know where her sister is. So she starts looking to find out what the city did with the remains… fifty years ago…

It proves difficult. For one, hospitals don't issue birth certificates for stillborn babies so there's no proof who you're looking for has actually existed. But she has good luck, she says—a death certificate. With this official document, she is able to start piecing things together. The death certificate leads her to a burial receipt, which leads her to the Department of City Records and finally to Hart Island.

And here, somewhere on Hart Island, that's where most of these records end. Hunt wants to open us up to this story—to feel it… At one of her shows, she’s arranged baby coffins in rows with their names on cards before each box. Her practice is part advocacy group, part historical society, a forum and ongoing wake and burial service all at the same time. In 2016 she’s at work on legislation that will transfer control of the island from the DOC to Parks and Recreation as well, the implementation of an online Hart Island cemetery. On November 14, 2019, the New York City Council passes legislation to create a public park where citizens can freely visit graves. On December 4, 2019, NYC Parks and Recreation assumes jurisdiction of Hart Island ending 150 years of penal control over city burials. Parks takes over managing Hart Island by July 1, 2021. Meaning no more liability waiver emailed to NYC Department of Correction

Office of Constituent and Grievance Services…meaning no more prisoners burying the dead…

Who winds up on Hart Island—who winds up on Rikers?

“Taking care of you” means your body is given a number, and then a pinewood coffin, and then you're shipped with other bodies to be stacked in a mass grave. Being “corrected” means being beaten, thrown away in darkness. It's at this point the city of New York has fulfilled its obligations. It has taken care of you. It has redeemed you.

In ancient Greece anyone who neglected the care of the dead (any dead) suffered insult and stigmatization; anyone who neglected the care of a parent's corpse was “deemed an outcast and unfit to live with the rest of the community.” Solon's laws forbade any spoken disparagement of the dead. For such offenses you could be deposed of your office or property. Coins set either on the eyes or stuffed into the mouth were payment to Charon for conveyance over the river of Styx and into the underworld. Suicides were allowed sepulcher, but the hand that committed the act was amputated and buried apart from the body. Traitors were buried apart from the land they'd betrayed. Only those struck by lightning were refused proper burial outright.

I’m repeating myself.

Melinda Hunt is an artist—and for the last thirty years—she’s been working on what she calls the Hart Island Project—which is the home to the Traveling Cloud Museum… According to the website:

Since 1980, 68,955 people have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island. The Traveling Cloud Museum is a collection of their stories. Through this interactive map we invite you to explore the island with all its stories. By clicking on a plot number you can access records of individuals buried at that location. Each person has a clock measuring how long they have been buried on the island. You can stop their clock of anonymity and restore their history by adding a story to The Traveling Cloud Museum.

I want to keep my friend alive so I remember him.  What compels someone to remember a stranger? To hurt for the past? In 2016 I discussed Hunt’s early career as an artist—her move from “material” or “object-oriented” work to Hart Island…As she discussed her “serious sculptures” her tone was almost mocking—all that overweening self-seriousness. In one piece she restaged Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare… she described it for me, laughing. You can’t mourn work. It doesn’t die. It doesn’t even break. It’s always telling its story. News that stays news. Rocky reading the paper to Adrian.

But then it’s 2020. And your friends. They’re work? Works we keep alive by feeding the image stories? Remembrances? You have to formalize their absence. You lose them if you stop paying attention. Jesus. And even then—it’s too much. We’re going to forget so much. It’s heartbreaking.

Below is the original 2016 article from Intercourse Magazine, Issue 3, from Pioneer Works Press

There isn't a single pixel of blue in the sky. The seagulls winging above the ship are nearly indistinguishable from the haze.

The ferry captain, Mark, stands at the railing, pointing out things of interest to a couple from Queens. They're the only other civilians with me on this boat to Hart Island, the city's potter's field. The man and woman are dressed plainly, like middle class people. Mark has freckles and a shaved head protected from the mist by a camo boonie hat with a string tied under his chin. He points out a missile silo, a crumbling building, the water itself—where some boys drowned last winter, or the one before that. He's not quite sure.

Hart Island lies at the west end of the Long Island Sound, about 15 minutes by ferry from City Island, Queens. Purchased by the city in 1869, it's the largest publically run cemetery in the US, with over 1,000,000 bodies buried in mass graves, and for reasons due to the mercurial evolution of bureaucracies, the municipal department whose responsibility it is to maintain the island, to perform burials and oversee visitations, is the Department of Corrections. That means the guy who shows you to the Hart Island reflection area has a gun in a gun holster on his belt and polished black boots and convicts in white shirts and blue dickies unload pine boxes from the back of the city’s morgue-wagon. The boxes go in a trench one on top of the other, like shoeboxes in a warehouse. With two guys lifting, they're not that heavy. It's like there's nothing in them. And with the baby coffins, it really is like stacking shoeboxes.

If you think about it, the inmates on the burial detail are actually pretty lucky. During the summer especially. About 15 or so low level offenders get to spend the day outside, near the sound, the smell of grass and soil—away from all the nonsense that comes with being inside, in the yard, in general population. Really, it's not so bad. That's how the Cpt. Tompkins sees it, the head corrections officer on the island, when I ask what it's like for guys to bury babies. There's one way to see it, and there's another way.They're just putting boxes in the ground. You don't necessarily have to think about what's inside the box.

If a useless or very old Arunta aborigine dies the tribe does not perform any “elaborate ceremonies.” The death of the old or the useless does not cause sorrow—or is not worthy of sorrow. When a “useful” man dies, his widow must “remain silent until a certain ceremony called the Aralkilima is performed.” She is also relocated and told to cease with her normal day-to-day routine.

Until 2007, the DOC made it next to impossible for civilians to visit the island, and even now, all but fifty paces of it are inaccessible. It's all very tightly regulated because of the presence of prisoners on the island. A typical visit—like the one I’m on—happens one Thursday a month. It entails a ferry ride with Mark, a short walk to a “reflection area,” and a ferry ride back. There's no looking at gravesites, or finding out who is buried where. You sit in a gazebo and stare at a field, imagining all those millions of bodies in there somewhere, no names or people to claim them.

On the ferry ride back, the blue DOC bus parks on the deck of the ferry. The bus windows are tinted so you can't see the convict's faces. You know though they can see you.

It is mid-morning now, still gray-scale. The couple is staring at the field from the “reflection area.” I am sitting on a bench in the gazebo, taking notes. In the distance, there's the sound of something like firecrackers, and there's a green tractor in the field, cutting the grass.

I hadn't ever considered what the city does with a person who dies living on the street or can't be identified until Catherine told me about the artist Melinda Hunt and her Hart Island Project. I had no idea there was a Hart Island, and I guess I'd always just assumed maybe a charity took care of their bodies, a shelter, or maybe they were cremated in a hospital basement. Or maybe I really didn't even think about it. But now I'm staring at what is basically a landfill of the poor and dead babies. I had no idea there were so many babies buried here.

The couple from Queens takes a seat across from me on a wooden bench. Husband puts a hand on Wife's thigh. Are you looking for someone?

Maybe I was but it's not the way I'm writing it. I'm here now to work through some ideas. I mention Melinda Hunt. I tell them to go to the Hart Island Project website and share their story. The one that the Woman from Queens tells me goes like this:

Her mother and father—almost 50 years ago—were losing their first-born son (her brother) to kidney cancer. To make up for the loss, they were counseled to have another child. So they did. They were eight months into the latest pregnancy when the son died. When that happened Dad had a heart attack, and when that happened, Mom gave birth to a stillborn girl. It was a whole chain of awfulness. Mom and Dad were most likely insane with grief and sickness. When the nurse or social services came in with paperwork they didn't know what it meant when they agreed to a city burial for the stillborn girl. They just signed papers. They had no idea the remains would be buried in a mass grave they wouldn't later be able to visit.

90 years old now, her mother is slipping into dementia. In moments of random lucidity, she’s begun asking where the body of her still-born baby is. She keeps talking about it. She wants to know. It's not right not to know.

Here, we encounter a different way of being in time; we count it differently, and we reflect on personhood and its mutability in relation to time and the psychological components of memory.

The Woman from Queens thought maybe this could be the thing that anchors her mind to this world, the one they share, so she started looking to find out what the city did with the remains of a stillborn sister, nearly 50 years ago. It proved difficult. For one, hospitals don't issue birth certificates for stillborn babies so there's no proof what you're looking for had actually existed. It wasn't until she found the death certificate—by luck she says—that she was able to start piecing things together. The death certificate led her to a burial receipt, which led her to the Department of City Records and finally to Hart Island. Somewhere on Hart Island. That's where most of these records end.

Hart Island is a potter's field, a graveyard for paupers and “strangers.” Its name is taken from Matthew 27:7—the scene with Judas and the Jewish priests, where Judas gives back the silver he was paid for betraying Christ and then goes and hangs himself. When they cut Judas down from the hanging tree, the priests say bury this “stranger-to-Jerusalem” and his 30 pieces of silver in a “potter's field”—meaning, in soil that has too much clay content and is worthless for farming.

In New York, you qualify for the potter's field if you die and you don't leave enough money for burial costs, and your friends and relatives aren't legally required or themselves don't have enough money to pay your burial costs. Or if your body goes 30 days unclaimed in the city morgue and you can’t be identified, and therefore assessed of your worth. Or if you're an infant and you die in a city hospital and social services offers your mother a piece of paper to sign that says the city will take care of you—and at that moment that’s the last thing your mother wants to think about. Taking care of you means burying your body.

Sure. Take care of you. Once you're dead, assessed of your worthlessness, your body is given a number, a pinewood coffin, and you're shipped with other bodies to be stacked in a mass grave. It's at this point the city of New York has fulfilled its obligations. It has taken care of you.

In ancient Greece anyone who neglected the care of the dead (any dead) suffered insult and stigmatization; anyone who neglected the care of a parent's corpse was “deemed an outcast and unfit to live with the rest of the community.” Solon's laws forbade any spoken disparagement of the dead. For such offenses you could be deposed of your office or property. Coins set either on the eyes or stuffed into the mouth were payment to Charon for conveyance over the river of Styx and into the underworld. Suicides were allowed sepulcher, but the hand that committed the act was amputated and buried apart from the body. Traitors were buried apart from the land they'd betrayed. Only those struck by lightning were refused proper burial outright.

Melinda Hunt’s work the last 30 years—what she calls the Hart Island Project—has been about investigating what taking care of someone actually means. For her, finding a form for stories like the one the Caucasian Woman from Queens tells is her way of taking care of those can't and would not be able to speak for themselves, in this life or after it. Through collective story telling, archiving, and the presentation of “fragments of abandoned history,” she’s been trying to make Hart Island’s bodies visible to the public. But it's more than just making those anonymous people and stillborn babies and everyone else on Hart Island visible: Hunt is making us “visible” to ourselves by asking us to really consider whether we want to own the brute facts of Hart Island's public function. This means seeing “Hart Island” for what it is—and asking—is it okay? instead of drifting through our days with the screen, the phone, the feed. Uninterested, inattentive, hypocritical, self-absorbed.

An artist before she's an activist, Hunt, a trained sculptor (Yale MFA), began her career making large deconstructed pieces that usually featured broken or abandoned playground equipment, flying concrete, fire and dust. Much of it was heavy, serious, and slow-moving. Though the Hart Island Project is radically different from her “material” or “object-oriented” work, it’s nevertheless there in the early work, with its material and physical concerns, as well as her tendency to impede or block the phenomenal experience of her forms. In one early work from the 80s, she bisects a teeter-totter with a slab of concrete so you can't see the person on the other seat. You have to trust that the other person on this plaything will play according to the teeter-totter rules. If they get off and you're up in the air, you'll wind up on your ass. This maybe has something to do with politics, she says laughing. In another early work, she stages a performance of Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare using water nymphs, a princess, a ring of fire, and adult suitors in wet suits flopping around in a fountain. The broken work of art reflects a broken set of social relations happening in real time.

In talking about the early work, you get the sense she doesn't see it with the seriousness she may have felt at the time she was making it, and she seems pretty fed up with the art world and its overweening self-seriousness as well. Her work doesn't quite line up with contemporary fashions, but is rooted in something like literary materialism—or (though she doesn’t use the term) social practice art. Dante and Eliot are key influences, spiritually, but so is Chicago, where she spent her formative artistic years. Otherness, concrete, alienation, immigration, dirt, and institutions in decline inform a worldview—but not her personality. She laughs a lot, shakes her head in bafflement. Why do people simply assent to the way things are? In her office in Peekskill, NY she points across the street to a row of parking meters. “People care more about where they're going to park their cars. Why would they want to open up Hart Island and make it available to anyone? It means more work for them!”

For the Hart Island Project, Hunt has made use of pretty much every medium available: a book co-authored with photographer Joel Sternfeld; publishing and repurposing burial documentation; publishing letters from Riker’s inmates who have buried the dead; emails from those looking to find someone who may or may not be on Hart Island. She’s made a documentary film; she’s constructed photographic sculptures; she’s made drawings and paintings; she’s had various museum and gallery shows. She’s arranged baby coffins in rows with their names on cards before each box. She speaks at conferences, writes letters. Her practice is part advocacy group, part historical society, a forum and ongoing wake and burial service all at the same time. She helps people actually step foot on Hart Island—going through all the bureaucratic hassle some people just aren't equipped to handle. Throughout this, she's become known to the system. It was her work—with a team of lawyers—that eventually got the DOC to release its burial records. “Imagine that—for some reason, the city didn't want people to know where people were buried on Hart Island. Why?” Currently, she’s at work on legislation that will transfer control of the island from the DOC to Parks and Recreation as well, the implementation of an online Hart Island cemetery.

Hunt calls this online project The Traveling Cloud Museum, which makes available not only the official public record (name, date of death, location of death, date of burial, location of burial) but the stories, anecdotes, pictures and other ephemera related to the lives of those buried on Hart Island.

For Hunt, story telling is an important part of the grieving process. The Traveling Cloud Museum provides people an opportunity to commemorate and re-enter into history those dispossessed masses who had been cast out of life as we live it. To emphasize this, The Traveling Cloud Museum keeps track of the time a body has been buried on Hart Island without any information about that person's life. This is symbolized by a clock, ticking away. Beneath the clock is the person's name, rendered upside down. When a story is added to someone’s clock and name—the clock stops ticking, and Time is returned to the Real. The name is made right side up.

The ferry slaps across the water and seagulls slap the sky above me. Mark indicates buildings now coming into sight behind a thicket of trees. “Most of these are condemned. They don't want people coming around here like a lot of the kids do. They sneak onto the island. They burn the buildings down.”

The Woman from Queens squints at where he's pointing. She twists a piece of tissue she's had in her hand this whole time as the ferry bangs into the slip. Two men pull chains connected to a wooden headworks that looks like a pair of gallows towers. Cpt. Thompson stands at the end of the dock near a jeep painted with the DOC insignia. He checks our IDs before we're allowed to go any further.

The Woman casts glances. “Are the prisoners here?” Two white shirts move across a field where a tractor is mowing. Cpt. Thompson’s dismissive grin reveals a large gap tooth. The cut grass smell is pungent and sweet.

On the way to the “reflection area,” Cpt. Thompson tells us the ferry guys bought the angel statuettes—depicted as bent on one knee, head bowed and hands together—and put them there, out of respect.

That’s good.

Also, we did not know that the first baby to die of AIDS is buried right here on Hart Island.

That’s sad.

It's the only body that has its own grave and marker.

Which is nice.

It’s over there behind that clump of trees at the east end of the island.

Which is restricted too.

At the “reflection area,” there's a single marker, of pale pink granite, and on it the inscription, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They’ve planted pink carnations along the picket fence but the surrounding trees are all dead looking. Cpt. Thompson's favorite tree is dead and the fence and the gazebo look beat up.

Husband has removed hand from Wife's thigh and is standing now next to Cpt. Thompson. The trees beyond the field where the tractor mower is mowing are thick with leaves.

Hunt seems to suggest Hart Island isn't commemorated because the public prefers grand monuments and sweeping gestures, which avoid the mess of “deconstructing into individual stories.” For Hunt, those individual stories are the art; they're the compelling and moving aspect of The Hart Island Project. “It's not about grief. It's more a creative inquiry into who we are. Are we just a bunch of people with no real connections to one another sharing space?”

In the cemeteries we normally visit, grave markers tell you the names of the dead, the date of birth and death, and sometimes a pithy quote to chew on. The marker speaks to the dead person’s importance. The most important people get the most important monuments, the bigger the more important the person was. It’s the same as in life. The most important people get to live in the most important houses—with important views and amenities. The most important companies have the most important skyscrapers and so on.

When we visit the graveyard we are entering an exclusive or closed off space, hidden behind shrubs or wrought iron gates. Here, we encounter a different way of being in time; we count it differently, and we reflect on personhood and its mutability in relation to time and the psychological components of memory.

Hunt's distinction that the stories in the Traveling Cloud Museum are art is important for a reason. The online graveyard or the accessed database cannot evoke the sensation of different space, nor is there the experience of a transition to different temporalities. You don’t physically pass from streets and houses to the land of the dead and then back. To die of grief means to stay where the dead are. There’s no emotional transition back. The hope is that the graveyard physically imposes the metaphorical return to the living upon those aggrieved, that one is, in a sense, able to leave one’s dead behind. But in the case of the Cloud, there's no leaving it. It is everywhere. In this sense—maybe the DOC and the city have it right—by estranging you from the body and the body from personhood and cultural norms of burial so wildly, by emptying out any vestige of humanity from the burial process, by making you jump through so many hoops, to travel by ferry over water to an island of the dead and the convicted—itself like something out of mythology—getting to Hart Island, standing there, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, it’s the equivalent of stopping your clock. You're freed from your self, and its corollary self-estrangement and alienation and you're returned, closer to the impossible Real, your name flipped right side up, the label for the bag of bones you are.

Both the Woman and myself are fascinated by the behavior of the island birds. They fly in a loop around the mower, going where it goes, hovering and diving at the tractor’s blades. They come close to getting ripped apart but dart in and out. It's like how gnats are attracted to light?

No.

When you cut the grass, the grasshoppers have nowhere to hide.“For the birds it's easy pickings,” our Captain says.

Hart Island is probably the most honest place in the city I've been. There are no lies, no sentimental or religious posturings here. It tells it like it is, and it is everything. Now we recognize the Statue of Liberty winking her eyes like pronouns unguarded by clouds: everyone has their vote and every voice matters and all men are created equal.