News

A Potter's Field as a Public Park

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The morgue trucks, loaded with plain, unmarked pine boxes, still arrive regularly by ferry to Hart Island, a potter’s field where the city has long buried its unclaimed dead.

The island was once a penal colony, and it has been run since the 19th century by New York’s jail system, which used inmate gravediggers and kept it off limits until 2021, when the city transferred the island over to its parks department.

Now, in a remarkable break with the decades-old policy of keeping Hart Island burials secretive and its graves unseen, the department is opening New York’s most forbidden place for public access.

Read more… A Potter's Field as a Public Park
James Estrin/The New York Times

City approves temporary placement for Hart Island memorial touchstone

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After nearly seven months of meetings and marches, the Hart Island Touchstone Coalition will be able to place their bereavement stone on the island. 

Read more… City approves temporary placement for Hart Island memorial touchstone
Courtesy Peace Abbey Foundation

Local advocates pushing for memorial touchstone on Hart Island run into roadblocks

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Elsie Soto’s father died when she was 9 years old, and it took her more than over 20 years to finally find his grave. Now she’s hoping to honor all those in unmarked graves by placing a bereavement stone where her dad is buried, at one of New York City’s most mysterious and painful landmarks.

Read more… Local advocates pushing for memorial touchstone on Hart Island run into roadblocks

Hart Island, the nation’s largest public cemetery, was created for the destitute but now serves a surprising range of people

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NEW YORK — Valerie Griffith’s final journey began on a battered ferry, a floating hearse bound for a most unusual island.

Nobody lives on Hart Island, a scruffy one-mile slice of land in Long Island Sound that New York’s tabloids call “Forgotten Island,” “Haunted Island” and “Isle of Tears.”

For 150 years, it’s been known as the place where the city buries its penniless — not art collectors like Griffith

Read more… Hart Island, the nation’s largest public cemetery, was created for the destitute but now serves a surprising range of people
The New School Photographic Collection

Inside the push to open up Hart Island, NYC's COVID cemetery

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Two years since burials of COVID victims began, an effort is underway to transform the island into an open public cemetery. So far, it has remained largely closed off to the public, and difficult to visit even for bereaved families.

Read more… Inside the push to open up Hart Island, NYC's COVID cemetery
©2022 Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project

Hart Island Burials Taken Over By Tree Landscapers, Uprooting Families’ Hopes for Transformation

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The city has tapped a landscaping company with no experience running cemeteries or public spaces to help transform Hart Island, the long-neglected gravesite of thousands killed by COVID, into a refuge for families and other visitors.

The management contract has both the leaders of some of New York’s largest graveyards and families of those interred on Hart Island concerned over the fate of the City Council’s $85 million vision to turn the potter’s field into the nation’s largest municipal cemetery.

Meanwhile, the city Parks Department plans to keep a former Rikers Island captain who supervised inmates carrying out emergency burials of pandemic victims in charge of interments. 

Read more… Hart Island Burials Taken Over By Tree Landscapers, Uprooting Families’ Hopes for Transformation

On Hart Island: Past, Present & Future

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Interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and founding director of The Hart Island Project - Melinda Hunt explored the historical significance of one of the most mysterious and beautiful places in New York City, Hart Island. During her interactive presentation, Melinda shared historical documents, videos, and testimonies to engage us with the municipal burial place's rich history - intrinsically connected in one way or another with all New Yorkers. This event was recorded on November 18, 2021.

Read more… On Hart Island: Past, Present & Future
NYC Department of Records and Information

Family Finds Missing Loved One Buried On Hart Island

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After decades of searching, relatives of missing loved ones finally find closure on Hart Island. The city parks department has eased visitation restrictions. On Saturday, Valerie Smith's family was able to commemorate their visit to her gravesite with a cell phone video on location.

Read more… Family Finds Missing Loved One Buried On Hart Island
Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project

The Biggest Public Graveyard in the U.S. Is Becoming Park

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New York City wants Hart Island, the burial grounds for victims of Covid-19 and AIDS, to be a more accessible and inviting place.

It's been the city’s dominant public graveyard since the 19th century. People were buried there during other epidemics including AIDS and the Great Influenza outbreak of 1918. For most of that time, Hart Island has been run much like a jail by the Department of Correction. Save for scheduled and highly-regulated visits, it's been inaccessible to the public. Most labor on the island was done by Rikers’ Island inmates paid a fraction of minimum wage.

But times are changing. This month the Parks Department took over the island, two years after the city council granted it control. Making it a more accessible and inviting space will be a challenge given the island’s deteriorating  buildings, ongoing burials and the need to establish a regular ferry service to the island. 

Read more… The Biggest Public Graveyard in the U.S. Is Becoming Park
Brody Ford/Bloomberg City Lab

Relatives Of Those Buried On Hart Island Say Access Remains Extremely Challenging

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A massive public graveyard is undergoing a transformation. New city management has taken over Hart Island in the Bronx to make it more welcoming to visitors. Advocates say conditions at the cemetery have improved, but there’s still a long way to go.

As CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge reports, drone video shows an aerial view of Hart Island, where more than a million New Yorkers are buried, including those whose families couldn’t afford funerals, or next of kin couldn’t be reached.

“Such a stigma of being buried there,” said Sean Rickard, who has a family member buried on Hart Island. 

Rickard was part of the first group of people to visit Hart Island since the Parks Department assumed jurisdiction last weekend, ending 152 years of control by the city Department of Correction. Until last year, Rikers prisoners buried the bodies on Hart Island, which meant the grounds were highly restricted.

“What we want to do is have it more resemble the experience of visiting any cemetery,” said Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project.

Read more… Relatives Of Those Buried On Hart Island Say Access Remains Extremely Challenging
Alon Sicherman & Sean Vegezzi/The Hart Island Project

Memorializing AIDS Epidemic Dead at New York’s Hart Island

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Hart Island is home to a burial ground for people who were interred in obscurity in New York City. The Hart Island Project, founded in 1994, aims to recover the stories of people buried there and recently launched its “AIDS Initiative,” which aims to recover the names and stories of those who died in the AIDS epidemic and were buried on the island. 

Read more… Memorializing AIDS Epidemic Dead at New York’s Hart Island
National Communication Association

Hart Island’s Last Stand

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On June 5, the Department of Buildings, citing public safety, issued an emergency order for the “immediate demolition” of 18 institutional, residential and service buildings constructed on Hart Island between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s.

Read more… Hart Island’s Last Stand
Melinda Hunt Courtesy of The Hart Island Project

NYC Temporary Morgue Lingers, a Reminder of Pandemic's Pain

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As the medical examiner’s office prepares to close the temporary facility, the agency has stopped taking newly deceased people there, and investigators are working to contact relatives and determine final arrangements for the roughly 200 whose remains are left, spokesman Mark Desire said via email last week.

Read more… NYC Temporary Morgue Lingers, a Reminder of Pandemic's Pain
New York Times

Hundreds of bodies of covid-19 victims are still in New York’s refrigerated trucks more than a year into the pandemic

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In a report to a city council health committee last week, officials with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner acknowledged that the remains of about 750 covid-19 victims are still being stored inside the trucks. Officials said during a Wednesday committee meeting that they will try to lower the number soon.

Dina Maniotis, executive deputy commissioner with the medical examiner’s office, said most of the bodies could end up on Hart Island, off the Bronx, where the has city buried its poor and unclaimed for more than a century

“We will continue to work with families,” Maniotis told the health committee, according to the City news site. “As soon as the family tells us they would like their loved one transferred to Hart Island, we do that very quickly.”

Read more… Hundreds of bodies of covid-19 victims are still in New York’s refrigerated trucks more than a year into the pandemic
Ted Shaffrey/AP

Rikers Inmates Will No Longer Bury The Dead Amid Hart Island Transformation

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“Hart Island has been treated as a topic of shame in this city, and it's largely been kept out of the public consciousness of New Yorkers,” Council Member and health committee chair Mark Levine, who sponsored pieces of the legislation, said during an oversight hearing on Hart Island Wednesday. “It should be a dignified place open to the public, not just to people who have loved ones buried there. A place which uplifts and celebrates the history, offers reverence to the stories of those who are buried there, including victims of the most recent pandemic.”


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget also includes more than $50 million in capital funding to demolish dangerous structures on the property. “The buildings are scary to people who visit,” said Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project. “They're a reminder of Hart Island being managed by the penal system for a very long time.”

Read more… Rikers Inmates Will No Longer Bury The Dead Amid Hart Island Transformation
©2021 Alon Sicherman and Sean Vegessi/The Hart Island Project

A Look Inside Hart Island, NYC’s Potter’s Field, as COVID Graves Grow

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Hart Island, a small piece of land off The Bronx, resurfaced in national headlines in April 2020, when New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

News footage of the island’s cemetery showed trenches being filled with pine coffins, sending shock waves around the world. But these mass burials taking place during the pandemic mark just the most recent interments in Hart Island’s long history.

Read more… A Look Inside Hart Island, NYC’s Potter’s Field, as COVID Graves Grow
Vox and Columbia Journalism School

One in 10 Local COVID Victims Destined for Hart Island, NYC’s Potter’s Field

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Last year on Hart Island proved deadlier than any year during the AIDS crisis. More burials are expected as the disproportionate pandemic impact sends thousands to the final resting place of New York’s most vulnerable.

Read more… One in 10 Local COVID Victims Destined for Hart Island, NYC’s Potter’s Field

Schumer and AOC Get Feds to Pay for Funerals of COVID-19 Victims in NYC and Beyond

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The federal government will help pay for the funeral and burial of COVID-19 victims whose families can’t afford the expenses, Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced Monday. 

In a rare joining of forces, the two New York members of Congress, who disagree on the Democratic Party platform, said that the Federal Emergency Management Administration will tap into the overall $2 billion national pot of disaster funds to cover the costs.

New York State will get approximately $260 million in funeral assistance funds, according to Schumer. FEMA will cover all funeral expenses, which run an average of $7,000. People can file retroactively for reimbursements dating back to Jan. 20, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020

Read more… Schumer and AOC Get Feds to Pay for Funerals of COVID-19 Victims in NYC and Beyond

How a Potter’s Field Became a Civil Rights Leader’s Resting Place

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In more normal times, Scott Green , a lifelong civil rights activist, may have had a ceremonious funeral followed by a burial in a military cemetery in Little Rock, Ark.

Mr. Green was one of the students known as the Lost Class of 1959 at Central High School, where a battle over forced desegregation in Little Rock helped propel the civil rights movement. After he died in April at age 76 with symptoms of Covid-19 in Manhattan, former President Bill Clinton called Mr. Green’s family to extend his condolences….

In 1965, Scott Green became first Black trainee of the local Sheet Metal Workers’ Union, and he would later recruit more Black members and go on to fight racial discrimination, while working on prominent buildings including the World Trade Center, his brother said.

Read more… How a Potter’s Field Became a Civil Rights Leader’s Resting Place
Nate Palmer for The New York Times

Biden Leads Mourning for Virus Victims

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In a somber sundown ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in a city virtually occupied by troops on guard against political violence, Mr. Biden paid tribute to the victims of the pandemic on the same day that the death toll in the United States topped a staggering 400,000— and almost a year to the day from the first report of the virus appearing in the country.


“To heal we must remember,” Mr. Biden said, standing in front of the Reflecting Pool, which was surrounded by 400 lights meant to mark the 400,000 victims of the virus. “It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all whom we lost.” 

Read more… Biden Leads Mourning for Virus Victims

Events

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Past events

Hart Island Project Annual Meeting

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The Hart Island Project annual meeting is open to the public and will take place on Zoom. If you were unable to attend you can watch it on the link below..

Video of Meeting

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Hart Island Project Annual Meeting
Anonymous AIDS graves on Hart Island - photo credit Sean Vegezzi ©2021 The Hart Island Project

Landscapes and Pandemics: The inequities of HIV/AIDS & COVID-19

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COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Latinx people, as well as LGBTQ+ people, many who are living at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities. Over the past year, several comparisons have been made between the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US in the 80s and 90s and the current COVID-19 pandemic. We will hear from leading academics and activists and learn what these pandemics mean for communities across the US.

REGISTER

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Landscapes and Pandemics: The inequities of HIV/AIDS & COVID-19

NYC COUNCIL HEARING: Hart Island and the City's Public Burial Process & Assistance Program

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The public is invited to attend this hearing and testify. If you are planning on testifying live via video conferencing, please register no later than 24 hours before the hearing. 


Each person who intends on testifying live should register separately. Persons who do not register in advance will not be permitted to testify live via video conferencing. 


If you are interested in viewing the hearing, but do not wish to testify live, the hearing can be viewed at  https://council.nyc.gov/livestream/.  


Written testimony may be submitted without registration by emailing it to testimony@council.nyc.gov up to 72 hours after the close of the hearing. Thank you for your cooperation. 


For questions about accessibility or to request additional accommodations please contact swerts@council.nyc.gov or nbenjamin@council.nyc.govor (212) 788-6936 at least 72 hours before the hearing. All other questions should be directed to me at ebalkan@nyc.council.gov.

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AIDS Burials on Hart Island Workshop with Elsie Soto

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Join The Hart Island Project and Elsie Soto at a live workshop this Saturday, Feb. 27.

Watch video in advance here

Join us on Zoom at 11:00 AM for workshop starting at 11:15 AM-AIDS Burials on Hart Island as part of Bronx Parks Speak-Up 2021
Zoom link – Meeting ID: 893 3782 3394 / Password: 46690

Read more…
AIDS Burials on Hart Island Workshop with Elsie Soto

27th Bronx Parks Speakup from 10-11 AM

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Meet with The Hart Island Project to answer your questions about our newest initiative to designate Hart Island National Monument.

Watch slide show in advance on the History of and Potential for Hart Island here

 Join Zoom meeting starting at 10 AM here

Read more…
27th Bronx Parks Speakup from 10-11 AM

City Island Nautical Museum Web Series: The History and Potential for Hart Island

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The City Island Nautical Museum's Vice President and Administrator, Barbara Dolensek, will be in conversation with President of The Hart Island Project, Melinda Hunt, exploring the history of and potential for Hart Island, the largest natural burial ground in the country, located right off the coast of City Island. There will be time for questions and answers.

WATCH Video of event

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City Island Nautical Museum Web Series: The History and Potential for Hart Island
©2018 The Hart Island Project

Mourning at a Distance: Grief and Memorialization During COVID-19

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One of the cruelest aspects of COVID-19 is that its victims often die alone. This fact not only dramatically affects those lost to the virus, who frequently pass away by themselves in a hospital amid relative strangers, but also the emotional health of the loved ones they leave behind. The highly contagious nature of the virus has made the traditional rituals surrounding death nearly impossible. There is no bedside vigil; no proper funeral; no grieving periods that involve the tender touch of family and friends and many of the deceased are buried on Hart Island which is now inaccessible to families and friends.  Melinda Hunt will be a panelist on this webinar. Register

Read more…
Mourning at a Distance: Grief and Memorialization During COVID-19
Sites of Conscience

Death Speaks to New York City Premiere

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At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, 150 years of inmate labor suddenly ended. This video shows the last day of prison inmates burying the dead on Hart Island on April 2. Additional evening screenings at BPL will continue throughout the summer.

Read more…
Death Speaks to New York City Premiere
Death Speaks to New York City ©2020 Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project

The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: You Won't Be Forgotten

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This workshop features a video with Belinda Brecska whose father Felix Reyes was buried on Hart Island in 1993. Belinda returns to the Bronx on June 20, 2019 but was misinformed about gazebo visits on that day. 

View Film: https://www.hartisland.net/aids_initiative

RSVP: staff@hartisland.net

Read more…
The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: You Won't Be Forgotten
You Won't Be Forgotten still from AIDS Burials on Hart Island webseries

The Hart Island Project Annual Meeting

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The Hart Island Project Annual Meeting is open to the public and will take place on Zoom. Please join us at 10 AM. Link to join meeting

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The Hart Island Project Annual Meeting

The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Everybody is Somebody

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This workshop features a video with Martha Wade whose cousin Shawn Ross was buried on Hart Island in 2005 when his mother refused to collect his body because he was gay. Martha learned about Hart Island in 2019 while watching the television series Pose. 

View Film: https://www.hartisland.net/aids_initiative

RSVP: staff@hartisland.net

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The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Everybody is Somebody
Everybody is Somebody/The Hart Island Project

The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Ghost Kid Beats

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This workshop features a video with Rafael Ortega Jr who composes music under the name Ghost Kid Beats, an homage to his father who died of AIDS in 2012. Filmmaker Edward Heavrin donated footage showing burials three months before Rafael Sr was interred in Plot 355 on Hart Island. 

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The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Ghost Kid Beats
Ghost Kid Beats/The Hart Island Project

The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Remembering Carmen Perez

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This workshop features Carmen Vasquez who lost four family members to AIDS. Her mother, Carmen Perez, died at Elmhurst Hospital at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1990. Carmen asked to see her mother’s body and was only shown photos. I met Carmen last year on the ferry ride to Hart Island for her first visit to her mother’s gravesite. 


Please View Film and RSVP for passcode join us Saturday, May 2 at 2:30 PM Zoom Meeting ID: 856 4630 3181 to discuss. 

Read more…
The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Remembering Carmen Perez
Remembering Carmen Perez/The Hart Island Project

The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Norberto Soto

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The first workshop features a webisode with Elsie Soto who lost her father Norberto to AIDS in 1993. Her family was unable to find a funeral director. This is a problem many families are facing today.  

Please View Film and RSVP staff@hartisland.net for passcode join us Saturday, April 18 at 11 AM Zoom Meeting ID: 914 3402 3709 to discuss.

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The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative presents: Norberto Soto
AIDS Burials on Hart Island: Norberto Soto/The Hart Island Project

HDC Preservation Conference: Open to the Public

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The Hart Island Project will have a table at HDC Preservation conference. Please stop by and let us answer you questions about the transfer of Hart Island to Parks: 524 W 59th St, New York, NY 10019

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HDC Preservation Conference: Open to the Public

Bronx Parks Speakup

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Please visit The Hart Island Project table at the annual Bronx Parks Speakup. We will have a table from 11 am to 12:30 pm to answer your questions about the newest Bronx park: Hart Island. We look forward to seeing you soon.

Read more…
Bronx Parks Speakup

Hart Island Bill Signing with Mayor De Blasio

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On Wednesday, December 4, 2019 Mayor De Blasio will sign bills transferring jurisdiction of Hart Island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. 

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Hart Island Bill Signing with Mayor De Blasio
NYC Design

#Giving Tuesday 2019 - Please contribute.

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Jail for the Dead: How New York City Buried the Unclaimed - A conversation with Thomas Laqueur & Melinda Hunt

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Public Lecture - The Aura of the Dead in a Disenchanted World - by Thomas Laqueur

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Aura—the breath of enchantment—that makes the body of a saint or a unique masterwork of art special is said to be on the wane, done in by technology and secularization. But the bodies of the dead and even their ashes, indistinguishable one urn from other, have lost little of their potency. This lecture explores the ways in which the aura of mortal remains function to create sacrality in the absence of God and other worlds beyond our own.

This event is cosponsored by the Department of History, the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Part of the Death and After series at IRCPL.

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