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He Buried The Unclaimed Dead On A New York Island. He Wants Others To Remember Them

Cas Torres pictured in 1987 in his late teens, around the same time he was imprisoned and transferred to New York City's Hart Island.
Cas Torres pictured in 1987 in his late teens, around the same time he was imprisoned and transferred to New York City's Hart Island.

More than 1 million people are buried on New York City's Hart Island, making it one of the country's largest cemeteries. The city has used a potter's field there for more than 150 years to bury the remains of unidentified or unclaimed people and those whose families can't pay burial costs.

Until recently, inmates from the Rikers Island jail complex were responsible for carrying out the burials.

Casimiro "Cas" Torres was one such prisoner tasked with the work. Torres, now 53 and long out of prison, came to StoryCorps in 2015 to remember the many people buried away from their loved ones there.

Cas Torres recorded an interview with StoryCorps in New York City in 2015 to keep alive the memory of the unclaimed dead people he and fellow inmates buried on Hart Island.
/ John White for StoryCorps
/
Cas Torres recorded an interview with StoryCorps in New York City in 2015 to keep alive the memory of the unclaimed dead people he and fellow inmates buried on Hart Island.

Torres arrived at Hart Island in the 1980s as a teenager after a series of run-ins with the law. Many of his arrests were drug-related offenses.

"My mother was an alcoholic, and she couldn't take care of us, so I pretty much grew up in different types of juvenile institutions," he said.

He knew from a young age what it was like to lose a loved one. His mother died of cirrhosis when he was 18.

When Torres arrived at Hart Island, he was assigned to the cemetery crew, he said. He had to bury bodies.

If Torres ever hit a breaking point, he said, it was during the grim moments when he had to bury babies who were unclaimed. "It's not something you should be seeing," he said.

"I think back on it, and I just can't understand it. I don't see how this can happen. But, you know, at the same time I do understand — I do understand there's things happening in this world that a lot of the public are not aware of."

On the island, the city has overseen the burials of homeless people, stillborn babies and victims of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, the cemetery was closed off to the public, so no loved ones could memorialize the dead. But, following a lawsuit and lobbying by advocates, NYC's Department of Correction — which was then in charge of the burials — began providing regular, monthly visits to Hart Island in 2015.

"The people who are unclaimed, I think they would want somebody to remember them, as simple as that," Torres said. "I think they would want somebody to come and see them. I think they would want somebody to care where they're at. And I think they would want somebody to mourn them. At least one person in this world you want to love you. And I think everybody wants that."

When New York City became an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, a soaring death toll led to a dramatic increase in the number of burials on the island. It's unknown how many COVID-19 victims are buried there.

In the spring of 2020, the city stopped using incarcerated people to bury the dead on Hart Island. As part of a wider transfer of power, the Department of Correction is expected to hand over control to the Parks Department before the end of this year.

Torres now lives in Queens and works as a superintendent for The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that supports the formerly incarcerated as they reenter society.

Before he started working there, the organization helped him turn his life around. Torres, now married, has been sober for almost 20 years and is the father of two children.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona and Liyna Anwar. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.