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Burial plans gone awry

August 8, 2016
by Kathleen Mears
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In May, I read Nina Bernstein's articles in the New York Times about Hart Island, New York City's potter's field in Long Island Sound. The article featured stories of those who ended up being buried there, and those who were buried there by mistake.

While researching the Hart Island piece, Ms. Bernstein knew from previous research on guardianships for nursing home residents that that there can be snafus in the system. When Ms. Bernstein interviewed employees at New York City nursing homes, she was told they saw body bags leave their facility in the middle of the night destined for Hart Island.

Ms. Bernstein searched for nursing home residents who died at age 100, and came upon Doris McCrea. Though Ms. Bernstein came upon other stories, the one about Doris would not let her go. Doris lived in New York, was widowed in midlife and had no children. She had lived frugally and worked for Continental Grain for many years.

In later life when Doris had colon surgery and refused to be discharged to a nursing home, she was declared incompetent and a guardian was appointed. The guardian wrote checks to Doris's nursing home for her personal expenses and for a burial fund. In her final days Doris was transferred from nursing home, to the hospital, and then to the hospice where she died. Then, she was buried on Hart Island.

Ms. Bernstein contacted a former colleague of Doris's who told her there was indeed a burial fund. But, no one knows what became of the money or the documents. Ms. Bernstein's research showed Doris's guardian resigned in 2000 and died in 2011—one year before Doris.

When Ms. Bernstein checked on Doris's final resting place at Hart Island, she discovered two months after her initial inquiry, Doris had been exhumed and moved elsewhere. Two months before her Hart Island piece was published she contacted the funeral home who handled Doris's funeral. The funeral director told Ms. Bernstein Doris was now buried beside her husband as she wished. When Ms. Bernstein asked if her headstone was up, she was told it was in process.

Both of these articles were fascinating because I knew nothing about Hart Island. Because of Ms. Bernstein's diligence, Doris was finally able to get the burial she wanted three years after her death.

Read the two New York Times articles:

Unearthing the secrets of New York's mass graves
How a vague hunch led from a nursing home to an island of mass graves


Kathleen Mears

Kathleen Mears has been a nursing home resident in Ohio for 20 years. She is an incomplete...