A century after one of N.Y.’s worst fires, we still struggle with how to bury the poor

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Workers marched in protest after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, in which hundreds of young women died because of unsafe working conditions. (Kheel Center/HBO)

Everyone, regardless of money, religion or the number of surviving loved ones, deserves the dignity of a respectable funeral. No one’s remains should be deep in a pauper’s grave, unvisited and unknown. And yet, when it comes to how we bury the indigent, little progress has been made.

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The tragic blaze killed 146 garment workers, many of them recent immigrants to America, all locked into a lower Manhattan tinderbox of a sweatshop. Thankfully, much has changed since (and because of) the fire. Workers today are far safer and better compensated. Unions protect them from abuses like those that led to the 1911 inferno. And modern building codes all but preclude another such catastrophe.

But one lingering problem is how we bury the very poorest and least cared for among us. Many of those who died in the fire had recently emigrated from Eastern Europe and were so impoverished that they had no money for a proper funeral. The Hebrew Free Burial Association buried 22 such victims, while similar societies did the same for others.

That obligation remains necessary today. As at the turn of the 20th century, immigrants frequently land on our shores with no money, family or roots. There are also Americans who don’t have money for a proper burial – nor a family to provide them with one.

Of the 344 burials we provided last year, fully one third of the deceased hailed from the former Soviet Union. The others we buried had outlived their families and funds, or were criminals who had no families – or whose relatives wanted nothing to do with them.

The number of people who die with nothing left is larger than most assume – and has grown since the 2008 financial crisis. People who would not have needed our services three years ago need them now: The number of burials we arranged in 2010 had increased by 28% from 2007.

And those who have no one to take care of them after death? According to Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello, Rikers Island inmates have dug graves on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field, for some 800,000 people since the mid-19th century. The corpses there are buried three deep and the graves are unmarked. If you remain unclaimed at a city morgue for a proscribed amount of time, you may be sent for burial there – or transferred to a medical school if your profile fits what is needed for research that week.