It's not a place many people choose to be buried — but it was perfect for him
This is the second story in The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island series from Radio Diaries. You can listen to the next installment on All Things Considered next Monday, and read and listen to previous stories in the series here.
When Noah Creshevsky found out he had bladder cancer in 2020, he decided not to have surgery. He was 75 and didn't want to live with an artificial bladder.
"He thought it was the beginning of a slope and he didn't want to go down it," says Creshevsky's husband, David Sachs. "I remember his surgeon was stunned because no one had ever declined [treatment]. Everyone wants to grapple for every minute of life."
So Creshevsky knew he was going to die. But he didn't know if it would be "three more weeks, three more months, three more hours," says Sachs. "We didn't know."
Sachs and Creshevsky had been living together for 42 years. They found the same movies funny, they read the same books. "It was a remarkably satisfying relationship," Sachs says. "So I was lucky."
Sachs was a teacher and book editor. Creshevsky was an experimental electronic composer. He called his music "hyperrealism." He was also a beloved teacher at Brooklyn College.
Early in his career, Creshevsky had studied composition with some of the most prominent figures in modern music, including conductor Nadia Boulanger. He originally imagined he would be a concert pianist, but then he fell in love with the world of electronic music and his dream changed.
"He realized what music could be," says Sachs. "It needn't be someone sitting at a keyboard or playing a string. But it could be something wildly imaginative."
Creshevsky started by taking familiar sounds and playing with them — stretching, layering, putting them together in unexpected ways. He would do field recordings, walking around with a tape recorder and capturing sounds on the street.
"He loved walking down the street in Manhattan where you could hear languages, not only that you didn't speak but that you didn't even recognize," Sachs says. "He loved the idea of a sound that you couldn't quite identify. Squint your ears, you know."
Then, as Creshevsky got older, his music became more serious, says Sachs: "A little less playful. The way life gets a little less playful as you get older. We become more and more aware of the sadness, of the inevitable termination that awaits us all."
"Sleeping Awake" was the last piece Creshevsky completed before he got sick.
Knowing they only had a few more months together, Sachs says they tried not to talk too much about death. "He didn't want to see me crying or upset," Sachs says. "So I had to put on a happy face. Everything hunky dory."
But they did talk about what Creshevsky wanted to have happen to his remains after he died. One option was to have a traditional burial, the way his parents had, in a family plot. Creshevsky was Jewish, but "nothing seemed to him more vulgar than fetishizing death with real estate," Sachs says. "You know, a stone, a marker, a mausoleum — he just didn't want a part of it."
Then they learned about Hart Island.
Hart Island is New York City's public cemetery, sometimes known as a Potter's Field. More than a million people are buried there, in mass graves, each with about 150 coffins inside. There are no headstones or plaques.
There is a broad range of people who are buried on the island – people whose families couldn't afford a private burial; people who couldn't be identified; and people who died in various waves of epidemics that swept the city. In the 1980s it was AIDS, and most recently, COVID-19. Close to 10% of New Yorkers who died of the coronavirus were buried on Hart Island.
It's not a place many people choose to be buried. But Sachs says Creshevsky was drawn to the idea of being buried collectively.
"The simplicity, the anonymity, the humility. And it was on the water, which he loved," Sachs says. "For someone who was such an egalitarian, who believed genuinely in everyone's equality, it was the right decision, for him."
They didn't tell anyone about their plan. But when Creshevsky's hospice nurse found out, she was upset. She had an image of Hart Island as a "garbage dump," says Sachs, "for only the unknown who no one cared about." But Sachs says, in the end, she came to realize the meaningfulness of the decision.
"A lot of people, I think, look at death as a way to extend your ego," Sachs says. "Either your monument or the way in which you're buried. And ego stops with death."
Sachs says that Creshevsky wondered about life after death. "He didn't believe in reincarnation in the literal sense. Like, I'm going to come back as Elizabeth Taylor," says Sachs. "But I may come back as a tree. I may come back as a breath. Who knew?"
Creshevsky and Sachs ended up having three more months together. "We had a wonderful time," says Sachs. Then Creshevsky started to get weak and delirious. "Not the fun kind of delirium where you're high or drunk, festive and funny. But the sad kind, where you don't know who you are. It was hard, man, it was hard."
Sachs remembers their last night together. He had been up several nights with Creshevsky, and he was tired. He kissed his husband good night, the way he did every night for the past 42 years. And in the morning Creshevsky was dead.
"You know when someone is dead," says Sachs. "It's not only that you poke them and they don't get up. But you know. You have a feeling that that person is dead."
Sachs says it was quiet for a long time, and then he was left alone in the apartment. "And that was how it ended."
It's been more than two years since Creshevsky died. But Sachs says he still finds it difficult. Friends sometimes ask him how he feels about Creshevsky's decision to be buried on Hart Island; whether he misses having a traditional gravesite where he could easily visit. Sachs says, unequivocally: No.
"I mean, I still think of Noah every day, every minute. This whole house we lived in together all those years, right? That bed that I sleep in every night is the bed in which he died," Sachs says.
"I wake up sometimes and I see he's not in bed with me, and my first instinct is to call to him, assuming he's in the other room. And then I realize, more or less quickly, that, no, he's not there. And that hits you sometimes like a ton of bricks. He's not in the other room or in another city. He's not anywhere. And then, almost immediately, a more calming realization sinks in: he's everywhere."
A final note: Sachs says he's decided that, when the time comes, he will also be buried at Hart Island.
This story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. It was edited by Ben Shapiro. Production help from the team at Radio Diaries: Nellie Gilles, Mycah Hazel, Alissa Escarce, Lena Engelstein, and Deborah George.
This story is the second in a series called The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island. You can find a longer version of the story, and other stories about Hart Island, on the Radio Diaries Podcast.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.