Monday, January 25, 2010

Mass Graves in New York and Haiti: Disposition and Disposal

marker grave memorial
Mass Burial in Haiti

In the wake of catastrophic earthquakes in Haiti, government officials have made a difficult and unpopular decision to bury the bodies of thousands of unidentified victims in mass graves. The dead are left in the street where they are loaded like so much garbage into dump trucks. The trucks file into the landfill all day long, dumping the bodies into pits as fast as they can be excavated, and then the graves are filled in with earth as well as time permits.

Due to this policy, families will lose forever the opportunity to identify their loved ones. They lose the chance to say goodbye and to take part in many of the comforting rituals that help them deal with their grief, and which allow them to return back to life. Religious leaders in Haiti and all over the world are raising their voices together against this practice, but so far it has had little effect.

No one wants to make a decision like this, and not being aware of the logistics involved I will refrain from criticism. It could well be the case that there is no other feasible alternative. Certainly the dead cannot simply be left to decompose in the street, and as devastating as it is for survivors, the focus of limited rescue efforts should be on the living. Avoidable or not, though, this is a horrible tragedy.

marker grave memorial
Metal debris from the World Trade Center

In New York, we find a striking parallel. At the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, debris deposited from the World Trade Center attacks on 911 has been shown to contain human remains. Families of the victims allege that authorities knowingly mishandled and co-mingled remains of the victims; plowing them into the landfill and even using them in road repair and construction projects. They have sued to have the debris removed from the landfill to allow for sifting out and identifying whatever remains are left, but so far, have not sought damages. Courts have disputed the right of families to sue without being able to identify the remains of specific victims.

The WTC families are in much the same situation as the Haitian survivors. They have been denied the opportunity to identify their loved ones, to say goodbye, to perform the rituals of their faith and traditions. They have had no say in where their loved ones are laid to rest, and must visit them at a landfill.

marker grave memorial
Workers sift through the debris at Fresh Kills

In our society today, more and more of us choose to dispose of our loved ones. We scatter their remains to the wind, or leave them unclaimed in the closet of a funeral home. We think we can forgo the rituals of the past., "Don't cry for me" "Don't let anybody look at me" "Remember me as I was" "Don't go to any trouble" "Just throw me in a ditch", these are the things we say to each other. We don't understand why anyone would want to cry over our body, or set flowers on our grave, or have to take the day off work to sit in a suit and get all choked up.

The need to say goodbye to our loved ones becomes obvious, though, when we see the heartache experienced by those who are denied the opportunity to do so. The need for a place to visit becomes clear when we see the WTC families going to a landfill to be near their loved ones. The need to engage in meaningful rituals is apparent when we realize the suffering of families who cannot perform the rituals of their tradition due to catastrophes like 911 and the Haitian earthquake.

So let us be grateful that we do have the opportunity to say goodbye, and let us pray for those who don't.

For the ABC News story on Haiti's mass burials, visit
For stories on the litigation and consequences surrounding WTC debris at Fresh Kills landfill, visit NY Times and NY Press
Artwork for this article was based on photos from and the EPA

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.