Death and Life in Great American Cities

To bury a loved one from Queens is to confront displacement in the here and beyond

We buried my father on one of those harsh, bright New York January days. The hard glint of the sun did little to counteract the bitter wind that weaved its way through my layers of winter clothing. The cold that day found its way past skin and sinew and settled for hours in the bones. My father had been dead for 24 hours. We were in a rush to get him to the cemetery and into the ground. A Muslim funeral requires that the family bury the body as soon as possible, foregoing embalming fluid, lavish ceremony, and ornate caskets. The ritual is fast and all-consuming. The process is numbing. My siblings and I navigated a bureaucratic deathscape. We planned and coordinated moving the body, which quickly became nothing more than a package of flesh, from hospital bed to mosque, from mosque to the ground. We procured a death certificate and signed the paperwork that officiates the end of a life in the eyes of the state of New York. The constant motion of death tasks was a balm for grief in the immediate aftermath of loss.

On the day of the funeral, my family drove in silence for an hour and a half to a mosque in Bay Shore, Long Island, where my father’s body was washed, his frail form wrapped in a plain white sheet and then placed in a modest pine box, his dandyism buried with him. Suffolk County is a foreign place to my immigrant dad, who spent most of his time on the streets of Queens and Manhattan, who knew someone on every block, who had picked up a little Spanish, a little Mandarin, and a little Bengali. He bought all of his ties and crisp shirts off the folding tables that once lined Broadway, from Nigerian street vendors. He often brought my brother and me to the City and let us eat non-halal hot dogs from street carts across the island with a promise that we wouldn’t tell our mother. He walked us underground down narrow steps to Korean buffets in Midtown, bought us hot beef patties from Golden Krust in Hillside, entrusted us to the man behind the counter while he arranged some sort of clandestine business deal with the Bengali electronics-store owner down the block on Jamaica Avenue.

There are two things I know about Bay Shore: It’s where you go to catch the ferry to Fire Island, and it is where you go before you bury a Muslim from New York.

The mosque, one of the first and largest on Long Island, has an ongoing relationship with Washington Memorial Park, an ecumenical cemetery that provides plots for Muslim funerals. Washington Memorial is another half hour from Bay Shore, in the town of Mount Sinai, almost two hours from Queens, depending on traffic. It’s one of the most popular of the few options for a Muslim burial in the New York metropolitan area, and where almost everyone in my family who immigrated to America and died in America has been buried. Both of my dad’s parents are buried here, in a place where they spent a collective four years of their long lives. Washington Memorial is a fairly bucolic place, unlike the cemeteries of Queens, where hundreds of acres bulge with millions of graves packed inches from each other, the headstones of the buried like rows of gray teeth visible for miles from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In this corner of the Park, there’s still room for grass to grow. The surnames on the headstones are South Asian, West African, and Turkish. And they’re all Muslim.

There are currently at least 768,767 Muslims residing in New York City, about 9 percent of the city’s total population. Muslims have been in New York for centuries. In 1907, eastern-European Muslims established New York’s first mosque in Williamsburg. Black Muslims have long played a key role in forming the culture of Harlem, while also resisting FBI surveillance since the 1940s. In the past four decades, the city’s Muslim population has grown dramatically, due to changes in immigration policy and the continuing forces of Western imperialism, economic precarity, war, persecution, and displacement. At this point, New York City is home to 23 percent of the entire Muslim population living in America. However, no exclusively Muslim cemetery exists in this city, where “go home” is a familiar anti-Muslim slur. Despite our building community institutions, connections, and lives in New York, “home” doesn’t exist for us here in death. Families bury their loved ones upstate, in New Jersey, and as far away as Pennsylvania. While small Muslim sections do exist in some cemeteries within the five boroughs, the demand far exceeds the supply.

Like everything else in New York, the cost of burial is exorbitantly high, and not just for religious minorities. At Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, a single plot can be purchased at a starting price of $19,000. On average, the cheapest plots in the city cost $4,500. Plots are so desirable that they can be found for auction on eBay. Even for those who can pay, it is expected that New York City will run out of space to bury its dead within five years. There are only two underground burial vaults left on the island of Manhattan. Each cost $350,000. After all, you are buying a share of land in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

The expense of dying in New York City is linked to the expense of living in New York City. If it feels like the city is creaking and bulging with the expanse of people within its boundaries, that’s because it is. The five boroughs experienced a population growth of 5.5 percent between 2010 and 2017, reaching a record of 8.6 million people, more people than have ever lived in New York. As land grows scarce, the cost of living in New York continues to climb, while wages remain fairly stagnant. In 2017, rent in New York rose twice as fast as wages. In an effort to ease market pressures, the city is rushing to build denser and build higher but has done little to ensure that the people who are already here can stay. Meanwhile, vast luxury apartment buildings market the notion of community with common spaces and weekly game nights for well-off tenants while stomping out any vestiges of the communities that they displace and destroy. Sometimes it feels like New York is taking its dying breaths, ripped apart by the collective talons of finance bros in fleece vests and glass towers. The real-estate machine is an insatiable beast feasting on the body of the city piece by piece, street by street, until it disappears.

This tension between life and death is not limited to New York. As the rich again take over cities across the world—part of the familiar cycle of conquest and extraction—there is a growing spatial mismatch between where jobs are located and where workers live. It is simply impossible for the low-wage workers whose labor fuels urban life to afford to live in those same cities. The demand for their labor in service of wealthy newcomers continues to grow. As a result, more and more people employed in service-sector jobs have been displaced to the outer edges of their cities. However, the creative class, as they are referred to by urban theorist Richard Florida, prefer a sanitized environment in which interaction with working people does not extend beyond a transactional relation. A modern-day huckster, Florida has sold the promise of fortune to cities across the globe. The approach is simple: Appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of young, wealthy, white creative professionals. What these professionals actually do is largely opaque—they’re tech workers, architects, and, according to Florida, “people whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new content.” These content makers would need a service workforce to support their demand for coffee, expensive restaurants, and clean offices. The jobs would trickle down, shifting the base of the working class to service work. Florida preached the gospel of the creative class to city after city, from Barcelona, Spain, to Elmira, New York. City halls are his church, bureaucrats his disciples. But neither Florida nor government officials accounted for rising rents, stagnant wages, staggering economic inequality, and the complete decimation of working-class communities of color, a perfect storm resulting from the rise of global capital, ballooning wealth, and an absence of antidisplacement measures like rent control and living wages. Richard Florida has played a major role in creating a world where a street in Austin, Paris, Asheville, or Phoenix can look eerily like a street in downtown Brooklyn—sterile, bland, lifeless.

While Florida has issued a weak mea culpa in his book The New Urban Crisis—promising that he has the solutions to undo the mess he created—the damage has been done. Across the globe, cities are ruled by those who prefer neighborhoods where service workers come in every day, answer to the whims of their bosses and customers, and leave at night, unseen and unheard except when taking orders, driving taxis, or cleaning homes. The same desire manifests itself in death. You might work yourself to death here, but don’t dare expect that death means you’ll somehow be able to stay.

As it becomes increasingly difficult for the residents that keep New York running to live here, it’s equally difficult for the same people to die here. The Eurocentric burial practices that structure death in America are class markers, signaling particularities about the deceased. A Park Slope address signifies a particular kind of life; a plot in Greenwood Cemetery now does the same. Michel Foucault categorizes cemeteries as heterotopias: places that exist on the margins of culture that both represent and invert society. They are worlds within worlds. The function of heterotopias changes as the culture they mirror and distort changes. The Central Park Ramble, for example, has been a venerated place for queer cruising and discreet encounters for nearly a century. As homosexuality has become increasingly acceptable and respectable, the Ramble is now more well-known for bucolic birdwatching than for its history as a pickup spot. Cemeteries have changed too. In the essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault traces the shift of Western burials from simple affairs that once focused on the soul to more lavish and individualized occasions that celebrate and mark the life led by the deceased, creating a new kind of deathscape defined by an ongoing shift from the centrality of Christianity in all areas of 19th century life to the dominance of secularism and, by extension, the individual.

In this individualized death process, burials, tombs, and markers signify whose death—and by extension life—matters, and whose doesn’t, and to whom. While my father had no connection in life to Suffolk County, Long Island, his death has meaning there. It is where he can be buried alongside family, other immigrants, other Muslims, who are also grappling with how to make an eternal home in a place they’ve never known. New York City, where my father made a life, doesn’t have space for people like him in death.

Restrictions on mourning have always existed in the United States. The everlasting physical symbols of death have been reserved for the privileged few. Until the 1950s, mourning was racially segregated; 90 percent of all cemeteries in America had racial restrictions on who could access luxury in death, and who deserved the right to mourn. In Montana, 19th-century Chinese rail workers killed by tunnel blasts and overwork lie in mass graves paved over to make way for roads. Returning to the jewel of New York City, Central Park sprawls across what was once Seneca Village, a small settlement established by free Black people. The village, which included two cemeteries, was razed in 1857 to make way for a public park essentially commissioned by New York’s aristocracy.

Across the country, the desecration and demolition of Indigenous burial grounds and Black-owned and operated graveyards is not only an affront to the dead but an attempt to erase any collective memory of the very existence of the living. The glass towers and celebrated skyscrapers of New York City are built literally on this erasure of history, monuments to capital constructed on a promise to forget anything or anyone that came before them. The messiness and dirtiness of poverty, of disorder, of communal living, has been swept to the corners of cities, while the core, reserved for the wealthy and mostly white, is power washed into a gleaming monument to blandness. Death, too, is muted in these spaces. Murals that celebrate the lives of neighbors and friends are painted over. Ghost bikes, markers of where cyclists lost their lives, are clipped from poles, tossed into the back of garbage trucks, crushed by the jaws of bureaucracy in the name of cleanliness, order, and expanding the tax base. In these spaces, mourning and grief no longer have a place in public, neither mourning of the death of a person nor that of an entire city.

This process of erasure is not confined to history; through public-works projects and land-use and zoning processes the poor and the marginalized are invisibilized in death. New York’s poor and indigent are still buried by Rikers Island inmates in trenches on Hart Island, a virtually inaccessible island off the coast of the Bronx where those afflicted with diseases like tuberculosis were once exiled. The proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall would displace and destroy the burial sites of the Tohono O’odham nation in Arizona. And in small towns and midsize cities across the United States, Muslims are refused the necessary permits to create their own cemeteries, their own collective memories, new spaces in which to lay their dead to rest. In the last decade, Muslims looking to build burial grounds have received public backlash in Walpole, Massachusetts; Dudley, Massachusetts; Farmington, Minnesota; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Farmersville, Texas, (where public outcry came from the widely held belief that the cemetery was a cover for a terrorist training camp).

In the Muslim tradition I was raised in, the funeral is not the single site of mourning, nor is the grave the single site of remembering. I have not visited my father’s body, in the ground only a few weeks now, since he was buried. I probably won’t visit his body until the anniversary of his death. And yet grief is not contained in a single physical space. Mourning cannot be regulated. My father will be remembered in the wafting smell of the halal carts on Roosevelt Avenue, in the delight of strangers who find they share broken shards of a common language, in the creases and crinkles of dress shirts stacked by vendors on plastic tables on Broadway. My father was an immigrant who was a little vain and preoccupied with his sartorial choices. My father was a worker who often wondered how he would feed his family, a fear that fed nothing but rage. He spent much of his life looking for home, moving from one country to another to find a place to lay his head. My father struggled against displacement in life only to encounter a different kind of displacement in death. To grieve in this city is to have found home in this city.

In New York, I find that we are always mourning, whether it’s people who have lost their lives or their homes due to rising rents, or the desecration and demolition of institutions that gave our communities meaning, or simply a memory of what this place once was and once gave us—immigrants, poor people, people of color, queers. Once you get to know this place, any street corner might be a memorial, any shuttered storefront could be a headstone, any turn down any block might lead you back to remembering a place or a person that no longer exists.