Hart Island was often considered a place where society’s “unwanted” were buried after they died. It is the largest tax funded cemetery in the United States, containing more than one million graves, and yet, few people even know it exists.
It is known as a potter’s field, a shared gravesite for the city’s unknown departed.
There are no individual tombstones located on this tiny half-mile long island east of the Bronx, just little white posts sticking out of the ground to mark each mass grave. Since 1869, a thousand children and infants and 150 adult bodies have been stacked one upon the other per grave. These anonymous bodies include the homeless, still-born babies, people whose families couldn’t afford a proper burial and those unclaimed after death. We just learned that if your corpse remains unclaimed at the city morgue for more than a few weeks, it will end up buried on Hart Island.
If that’s the case, it can take months (sometimes years) to find out if your lost sibling, mom, dad, child or friend wound up buried here.
Even well-known individuals are located in one of the mass graves, one such person is Bobby Driscoll, who was the voice of Peter Pan. Another was the first child to ever die of AIDS.
The burials are performed by prisoners from Riker’s Island, who earn 50 cents an hour digging graves and stacking wooden boxes containing the corpses. According to visual artist Melinda Hunt, each year, nearly 1,500 bodies arrive. Hunt heads the Hart Island Project, which is working toward making the cemetery accessible to the public, “so that no one is omitted from history.”
“You have a right to know where a person is. It’s very important not to disappear people. It’s not an acceptable thing to do in any culture,” Hunt said.
Over the years, the Hart Island Project has managed to document more than 60,000 burials in the database, though countless more are in the works.
The island has been closed off to the public ever since the Department of Corrections (DOC) took control in 1976.
Since 2007, only a handful of people have been allowed to visit, and even then, visitations are restricted to every third Thursday of the month, a map of the burials is non-existent and absolutely no one is allowed to see a particular grave. Hunt says that New York City is the only municipality that requires people to provide a death certificate before visiting this public cemetery, but that visitors to the mass grave are treated more like inmates than mourners.
Photography and filming of the forbidden island, which houses abandoned and decaying buildings, is strictly prohibited. Images of the site exist only because a few members of the media and grieving family members were permitted to capture them.
Hart Island was first used a cemetery during the Civil War. It was later operated as a prison for captured Confederates, a workhouse for the poor, a mental asylum and even a Cold War missile base.
New York City is currently debating over the handling of the unclaimed dead, and those who wish to mourn their loved ones. Queens lawmaker Elizabeth Crowley promises to reintroduce a bill to transfer Hart Island’s operations to Parks Department.
Images: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images/Hart Island Project