Courtesy of David Sachs
This is the second story of The Anonymous Cemetery: Stories from Hart Island series of Radio news. You can listen to the next opus on All things Considered next Monday, and read and listen to previous stories in the series here.
When Noah Creshevsky discovered he had bladder cancer in 2020, he decided not to have surgery. He was 75 years old and did not want to live with an artificial bladder.
“He thought it was the start of a hill and he didn’t want to go down it,” said David Sachs, Creshevsky’s husband. “I remember his surgeon was stunned because no one had ever refused (the treatment). Everyone wants to attack every minute of their life.”
So Creshevsky knew he was going to die. But he didn’t know if it would take “three weeks, three months or three hours more,” Sachs says. “We didn’t know that.”
Sachs and Creshevsky had lived together for 42 years. They found the same films funny, they read the same books. “It was a remarkably satisfying relationship,” Sachs says. “So I was lucky.”
Courtesy of David Sachs
Sachs was a teacher and book publisher. Creshevsky was an experimental electronic composer. He has described his music as “hyperrealism”. He was also a beloved professor at Brooklyn College.
Early in his career, Creshevsky had studied composition with some of the most prominent figures in modern music, including the conductor Nadia Boulanger. Initially, he 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,” Sachs says. “It doesn’t have to be someone sitting at a keyboard or playing a string. But it could be something wildly imaginative.”
“Strategic Defense Initiative” by Noah Creshevsky
Creshevsky began by taking familiar sounds and playing with them – stretching them, layering them, putting them together in unexpected ways. He would make field recordings, walk around with a tape recorder, and capture the sounds of the street.
“He loved walking the streets of Manhattan, where you could hear languages that you not only didn’t speak, you didn’t even recognize,” Sachs says. “He loved the idea of a sound you couldn’t really identify. Squint your ears, you know.”
“Tomomi Adachi Accurate” by Noah Creshevsky
Then, as Creshevsky got older, his music became more serious, Sachs says: “A little less playful. Life gets a little less fun as you get older. We become more and more aware of the sadness, of the inevitable end that awaits us all. »
“Sleeping Awake” was the last piece Creshevsky completed before becoming ill.
“Sleeping Awake” by Noah Creshevsky
Knowing they only had a few months together, Sachs says they tried not to talk about death too much. “He didn’t want to see me cry or get upset,” Sachs says. “So I had to put on a happy face. Everything is great.”
But they talked about what Creshevsky wanted to happen to his remains after he died. One option was to have a traditional burial, as his parents had done, in a family plot. Creshevsky was Jewish, but “nothing seemed more vulgar to him than fetishizing death with real estate,” Sachs says. “You know, a stone, a marker, a mausoleum – he just didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Then they discovered Hart Island.
Hart Island is New York City’s public cemetery, sometimes known as Potter’s Field. More than a million people are buried there, in mass graves, each containing around 150 coffins. There are no headstones or plaques.
A wide range of people are buried on the island – people whose families could not afford a private burial; people who could not be identified; and people who died during the various waves of epidemics that swept the city. In the 1980s it was AIDS and, more recently, COVID-19. Nearly 10% of New Yorkers who died from the coronavirus were buried on Hart Island.
It’s not a place where many people choose to be buried. But Sachs says Creshevsky was attracted to the idea of being buried collectively.
“The simplicity, the anonymity, the humility. And it was on the water, which is what he loved,” Sachs says. “For someone who was so egalitarian, who truly believed in the equality of all, it was the right decision for him.”
Courtesy of David Sachs
They didn’t tell anyone about their plan. But when the nurse at Creshevsky’s hospice found out, she was devastated. She had an image of Hart Island as a “dumping ground,” Sachs said, “reserved for strangers that no one cared about.” But Sachs says that ultimately, she realized the meaning of the decision.
“I think a lot of people view death as a way to expand their ego,” Sachs says. “Either your monument or the way you are buried. And the ego stops with death.”
Sachs says 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,” Sachs said. “But I might come back as a tree. I might come back as breath. Who knew?”
Courtesy of David Sachs
Creshevsky and Sachs ended up spending another three months together. “We had a wonderful time,” Sachs says. Then Creshevsky began to become weak and delirious. “Not the fun kind of crazy where you’re high or drunk and 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 slept several nights with Creshevsky and he was tired. He kissed his husband goodnight, as he has done every night for the past 42 years. And in the morning Creshevsky was dead.
“You know when someone is dead,” Sachs says. “It’s not just that you push them and they don’t get back up. But you know. You feel like that person is dead.”
Sachs said it was quiet for a long time, then he was left alone in the apartment. “And that’s how it ended.”
It has been more than two years since Creshevsky died. But Sachs says it still seems difficult to him. Friends sometimes ask him what he thinks of Creshevsky’s decision to be buried on Hart Island; if he misses having a traditional grave where he could easily go. Sachs says unequivocally: No.
“I mean, I still think about Noah every day, every minute. This whole house that we lived in together all these years, right? This bed that I sleep in every night is the bed that he’s dead,” Sachs said.
“I wake up sometimes and see he’s not in bed with me, and my first instinct is to call him, assuming he’s in the other room. And then I realize, no longer or less quickly, that no, he’s not there. And it hits you like a ton of bricks sometimes. He’s not in the other room or in another city. He’s nowhere. And then , almost immediately, a more calming awareness invades us: it is everywhere.
One final note: Sachs says he decided that, when the time came, he would also be buried on Hart Island.
“In Memoriam” by Noah Creshevsky
This story was produced by Radio Diaries’ Joe Richman. It was edited by Ben Shapiro. Production assistance from the Radio Diaries team: 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 site Radio News Podcast.
You can listen to more music from Creshevsky here.
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