Rosalee Grable’s last wish was to be buried with other poor people in New York City’s potter’s field on Hart Island — an eroding 100-acre spit of land on Long Island Sound.
“I am getting quite eager for my little spot on Hart Island,” Grable said in a soft halting voice from her sick bed in Manhattan several days before her death from pancreatic cancer Tuesday at 65.
Using an oxygen tank, her last breaths were about Hart Island. “I don’t think anyone has volunteered to be buried there. I am feeling death and I am waiting for the wagon to come and get me,” she said referring to the vehicle she expected would take her to Hart Island, with its deteriorating and abandoned buildings.
Grable was a leading voice during public hearings at City Hall. She demanded that Hart Island be preserved and maintained as a dignified resting place for impoverished individuals.
About 1,500 people, stillborn babies and homeless veterans are buried annually in unmarked graves on Hart Island. It is operated by the Correction Department, whose inmates dig the trenches where the pine box coffins are laid. The island, which is closed to the public, abuts Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
Conditions worsened after superstorm Sandy. Bones and skulls washed up on City Island and nearby Orchard Beach. In other cases, the bodies of the deceased have gone missing from the island. A Bronx mother earlier this year filed a $5 million lawsuit after her baby’s remains could not be located.
“The status quo [at Hart Island] is indefensible,” said Council member Mark Levin (D-Manhattan). He is a member of the parks subcommittee, which is pushing for a bill to have the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation assume control of the cemetery. Parks officials said they had no interest.
At least 1 million people are believed to be buried on the island, which once served as a Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a Cold War missile defense site.
Grable’s mother, who died in 2014 at age 84, is buried on the island. Grable and hundreds of family members sued the city to get permission to visit the graves of relatives. “I was happy when I got to visit my mother,” Grable said. “I fell in love with the island and I want to rest near her.”
Melinda Hunt, Hart Island Project executive director, a nonprofit group that keeps a database of the people buried there, said: “No one has fought as hard as Rosalee. She was worried that none of her friends will be able to visit.” Only family members can visit.
“People want to be buried there and we need to make it a friendly experience for family and friends,” said Council member Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens). “This is a municipal cemetery. Nowhere in the United States is there a corrections department running a cemetery.”
Before dying, Grable said: “Theoretically I am poor; but I had a life. I have lived with taste and found life to be fair and square even on the streets. Half of the people thought I was homeless and the other half thought I was an artist.”
Grable, who battled mental illness, was a custom design seamstress in Chicago. Her daughter Roseanna Blanchard, 44, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was at mother’s bedside until Monday night. She said her mother was “one of the most resourceful women I know.”
“My mother is dying and she wants dignity. As long as she is happy I am happy,” Blanchard said, adding she hopes to visit her mother and grandmother on Hart Island.
Family members cannot be at the burial and they are notified 30 days after it’s done. Friends who want to visit her grave will have to be accompanied by family members, which in Grable’s case is difficult.
“Like a lot of New Yorkers, she is from someplace else,” Hunt said. “Her family is in Michigan, but all her friends are in New York . . . She was a really great person,” Hunt said, remembering her last meeting with Grable. “She said she was going to haunt Hart Island until the city transfers jurisdiction” to the parks department.