A recent feature story by the New York Times’ Corey Kilgannon carried an intriguing headline: ‘Can an Island Off the Bronx With One Million Graves Become a City Park?’
City planners are suggesting that it can.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez says he wants Hart Island to be placed under the jurisdiction of the city Parks Department. At present, it is being run by the city’s Department of Correction, and inmates bury the bodies of people who go unclaimed, unidentified or can’t afford any other burial,” according to the Wall Street Journal. “Someone who wants to visit a loved one buried there should not be guarded by correction officers,” Rodriguez said in an interview.
Hart Island is a relatively little known island in the northeast Bronx, New York City measuring roughly one mile long as one-third of a mile wide. It is the largest public burial ground in the country. For those searching maps for it, it is located at the western end of Long Island Sound. It is part of the Pelham Islands group, which is located to the east of City Island.
Over a million people are, indeed, said to have been interred on Hart Island since 1869, but not so many recently – under 1,500 burials a year now. Those buried there are people who were not claimed by family, the homeless and the indigent. Access to the island is restricted; it can only be reached by ferryboat, family members of those interred must request access in advance, and the New York City government only allows 50 to 70 visitors per month as of 2017.
The Hart Island Project, which was founded in 1994, has assisted families in obtaining copies of public burial records and has advocated for easier access to the island. In 2018, some officials decided to venture to the island and collect human bones. The reason was compelling: reports had surfaced that foul weather and rising tides had unearthed remains, depositing bones on the island’s shoreline. When photos began surfacing, forensic anthropologists from the New York City medical examiner’s office made the trek and gathered and cataloged nearly 200 human bones.
“This is insane. This is crazy that a million people are buried on Hart Island, mostly poor and marginalized individuals and there is one Saturday a month to visit. This is crazy,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told CBS News. “Johnson is among many elected officials who say it’s time management of the island changes hands. He wants it operated by the Department of Parks instead of the Department of Correction.”