Alumna Profile

Melinda Hunt ’81

Bringing the Dead to Life

By Laurie Lindquist
Melinda Hunt

Melinda Hunt '81 unearths the secrets of Hart Island, a giant potter's field in New York City. The drawing is of playwright Leonard Melfi, who was buried there. Photo by Laura Vanags, The Banff Centre.

Melinda Hunt made headlines in the fall for her work on the Hart Island Project—an effort to tell the stories of the people who are buried in one of New York City’s oldest cemeteries. As many as 850,000 people are buried on the island, but it has no headstones—by and large, its inhabitants couldn’t afford a private funeral or were not claimed by relatives. A significant proportion are infants and stillborn children. “Hunt is an artist,” wrote Adam Geller of the Associated Press, “but the portrait of Hart Island she has created over the past 19 years blurs the boundaries of that job description.” She has become Hart Island’s “detective and de facto archivist, its lead witness and chief scribe.”

Melinda founded the Project in 1991; published the book Hart Island with photographer Joel Sternfeld in 1998; and produced the documentary Hart Island: An American Cemetery with jazz composer Fred Hersch in 2006. Two years ago, Melinda obtained the cemetery burial records with the assistance of lawyers David Rankin ’99 and Mark Taylor ’99. The next step was to create a database of the records. Melinda turned to Reed’s career services director Ron Albertson, who helped her find a database engineer. Registered visitors may now search the database and submit their stories, poetry, images, and related links for the project. “These are stories that are not told, that the public hasn’t had access to, that people feel ashamed of,” Melinda told the Associated Press. “And, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, what people are ashamed of makes very good stories.” (See