New York’s Hart Island, the resting place of over 1 million, is fertile ground for civic good — and an urban metaphor. What has traditionally been a site of mourning on the eastern shore of the Bronx (a literal gravesite) can be reincarnated as a public space. A bill that passed in New York state last month has plotted the island’s future as a more accessible park for residents and visitors to the borough.
Historically, the island — the world’s largest tax-funded cemetery — has operated under the purview of the Department of Corrections (DoC), which pays Rikers Island inmates $1 an hour to handle the area’s many bodies. The bill, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law earlier this month, will transfer control of Hart Island to the New York City Parks Department.
To advocates, Hart Island — its bureaucracy, inaccessibility, and injustice — is notorious.
During the DoC’s controversial reign, mourners were only permitted to visit the site during limited hours a few times per month. (For years, loved ones were barred from the site altogether; visiting privileges were only granted after a lawsuit in 2015.) During those limited hours, friends and family were under strict watch by DoC personnel and surrounded by unfriendly barbed wire fences.
Not only has Hart Island erected literal barriers to entry, but the area has reinforced harsh social borders. Since the 1860s, Hart has been the final stop for New York’s “indigent” population — homeless, stillborn babies, early victims of the AIDS epidemic, the “unclaimed,” the poor, and the otherwise forgotten by the city government. Strikingly, the graves on Hart Island are unmarked. By the mass graves — which hold coffins for up to 150 adults or 1,000 babies — anonymous white markers stand in lieu of headstones. (In 2015, the Hart Island Project launched the digital Traveling Cloud Museum to acknowledge and honor the identities of those who were buried there.)
According to Melinda Hunt, who founded the project in 2011, revoking the DoC’s control over Hart Island “lifts the stigma associated with public burials in New York City.”
“Hart Island is the largest natural burial ground in the United States,” she told Hyperallergic in an email. “It is a sustainable, ecological alternative to cremation and embalming. New York City is not running out of burial space. If the burials continue and the land is managed by Parks, it will become a model urban cemetery.”
To Hunt, an artist-photographer, all cemeteries are “places of storytelling.”
Under Hunt’s leadership, the Hart Island project has facilitated roughly 500 visits to the site.
The Parks Department measure belongs to a group of four related bills, all of which passed in December. One such bill tasked the city’s Department of Transportation with creating a ferry service and transport plans to shuttle visitors to and from the island.
Although each bill sailed through committee, some on the city council argue the city may be trading one set of publicly funded problems for another.
Councilman Mark Gjonaj — who represents Hart Island, among other districts — told Curbed that the “infrastructure does not exist” to maintain a ferry service from City Island to the gravesite. Extending ferry service, he continued, “would create a public safety hazard.”
Hart Island has been in poor condition since Hurricane Sandy passed through New York, debilitating Hart’s infrastructure.
But to Hunt, the principle stands firm.
“In New York City we live in close proximity to one another and are buried inches apart. Our graves are marked using GPS and we owe our public parks to generations whose bodies saved our greenspaces from development,” she said.
NYC Parks has not announced whether Hart Island will continue to accept new bodies for burial.