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Poets honor Potter’s Field dead in Flushing

A group of 11 poets from across the five boroughs honored people who had been buried in the Bronx’s Potter’s Field over the past three decades by reading their names last weekend during a poetry reading at the Flushing Friends Meeting House.

The poets interspersed the names of the people, who had died in the city between 1980 and 2008 and were located through the Hart Island Project digital database after being buried at Potter’s Field, in their verses.

“These names resonate,” poet Michael Brownstein said during the event at the meeting house, located along Northern Boulevard in Flushing. “Today’s Mother’s Day and all these unknown people who were buried in Potter’s Field have been returned to their mother, this Earth.”

The Hart Island Project is an initiative to uncover the city’s public burial ground on the Bronx’s Hart Island at the western end of the Long Island Sound. A potter’s field is where people like the poor and stillborns are buried.

The event was hosted by Flushing Monthly Meeting and the Bowne House Historical Society. Bedford-Stuyvesant poet Louis Reyes Rivera acted as the master of ceremonies during the reading.

“Here, we are praising the city’s dead and giving them a dignified burial,” said poet Rosalind Maya Lama, a member of an advocacy group that fights for the rights of adoptees.

The Sunday event was the first time the names of the dead buried on Hart Island have been publicly read aloud since grave site religious services were ended there in 1958. The public is no longer allowed to visit actual graves on the island.

“How the other half dies is indicative of how the other lives,” said Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project. “Through the powerful voices of prominent poets, we hope to make an invisible 101 acres and one-tenth of the population visible.”

The city Corrections Department manages the public burial ground and maintains its records. Public access to Hart Island is limited to people who can prove their relatives are buried on the island.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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