A Million Bodies Are Buried on Hart Island. Now It’s Becoming a Park.

The morgue trucks, loaded with plain, unmarked pine boxes, still arrive regularly by ferry to Hart Island, a potter’s field where the city has long buried its unclaimed dead.

The island was once a penal colony, and it has been run since the 19th century by New York’s jail system, which used inmate gravediggers and kept it off limits until 2021, when the city transferred the island over to its parks department.

Now, in a remarkable break with the decades-old policy of keeping Hart Island burials secretive and its graves unseen, the department is opening New York’s most forbidden place for public access.

“For decades, Hart Island has been misunderstood and stigmatized,” said Sue Donoghue, the agency’s commissioner. “But today is a new day.”

The city still conducts about 1,100 burials every year on Hart Island, adding to the million bodies already buried on this 131-acre strip in Long Island Sound off the coast of the Bronx. But in the coming months, the dead will share the island with nature classes and guided tours under the department’s Weekend Adventures series, which will be led by urban park rangers.

The events typically feature canoeing, hiking, archery and fishing jaunts — programming designed to both honor the dead and lift the stigma surrounding the island. An advocacy group has also developed a navigation and augmented reality tool that allows visitors to navigate the island and search burial records with a smartphone.

Sometime later this year, parks officials expect to open the programs to a limited number of users under “managed visitation,” a pilot intended to answer the delicate question of how to open access to an island that is home to acres of unmarked mass graves.

Will a $70 million makeover of a place known as the Island of Lost Souls be enough to banish its spooky aura and lift its Dickensian gloom?

The city’s Human Resources Administration, which took over burial operations and records, has cleared decades of undergrowth. The Department of Design and Construction has razed and removed 15 crumbling buildings, leaving panoramic views and a more open feel.

Gone, too, is the large “PRISON KEEP OFF” sign on a decrepit waterfront building.

Returned to a more natural state, this verdant and undeveloped parcel might seem like an obvious park location. New York has seen great success in transforming neglected open spaces, like Governors Island off Lower Manhattan, once a military post, and the abandoned freight tracks in Chelsea that are now the High Line.

But the graves will remain undisturbed. Officials have no plans to turn the nation’s largest public cemetery into recreational space with playgrounds and picnic tables. There are no amenities like bathrooms, shelter or electricity. Visitors are greeted with a rudimentary parks department sign and a few small statuettes of angels and the Virgin Mary.

“It will be passive, scenic open space, not a place where people disembark and go at it, just to have fun,” said Mitchel Loring, a senior project planner with the parks department, as he walked the island on a recent afternoon.

He envisioned the island becoming a visitable cemetery, like Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx. But those are both idyllic, well-manicured expanses, with elaborate monuments marking the graves of historic figures. Hart Island is nothing like that.

Instead of headstones, its flat terrain is punctuated by small white posts demarcating plots for the poor, the homeless, the indigent and the stillborn. No names are listed.

At the moment, the island is served by a single city-run ferry long used to shuttle morgue trucks on the brief ride from City Island, a quiet residential enclave in the northeast Bronx that juts into the sound.

Future transportation options will include a 3.5-mile shuttle bus from the 6 train to the ferry (which has no parking lot) or a new dedicated water route from the Bronx.

Parks officials were initially hesitant to take over the island because of its many challenges, including a lack of basic utilities and the presence of inmate burial crews.

But inmate labor ended during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when deaths overwhelmed morgue capacities and doubled the usual interment rates. With Covid sweeping through jails, the burial crews were replaced with contracted laborers.

It was a long overdue decision to Melinda Hunt, the founder of the nonprofit Hart Island Project, who has criticized the use of inmate labor and faulted the city’s secrecy for furthering the stigma surrounding the island and its burials.

Anticipating island access, her group developed its navigation tool to help visitors better find graves and view virtual headstones superimposed on their locations.

Ms. Hunt became interested in the island in 1990 while looking into what happened to friends who died of AIDS. Since then, she has documented the burial process on Hart Island, fought for increased access and awareness, and helped hundreds of people visit the graves.

She said she had hoped that the 2019 law ending “150 years of penal control” would make the island free-range parkland instead of merely allowing “the occasional tour group.”

“The city has budgeted more than $80 million in tax dollars,” she said. “New Yorkers deserve to be able to walk around freely in their cemetery. The parks department shouldn’t be restricting access to this public space — they’re assuming people don’t know how to behave in a cemetery.”

Like every great city, New York has developed a funerary culture that mirrors its living culture, and the pronounced disparity between rich and poor is reflected even in death. The wealthy can be buried under elaborate monuments in prestigious cemeteries while some of the least fortunate are relegated to a pauper’s grave.

New York City is also unique among American cities for having its own dedicated public cemetery — as well as its insistence on keeping its indigent grave sites off limits to the public.

Mr. Loring said it was crucial, no matter how many visitors come to Hart Island, to maintain the dignity of the burials that will continue to be “the primary function of the island.”

Public access would be restricted on burial days, typically Thursdays and Fridays, as well as the two days every month when the city conducts graveside visits for family, he said.

“It’s impossible for visitors to forget that burials take place here, and the idea is not to shield them from the fact,” Mr. Loring said on a recent tour of the island. Active burial trenches would be fenced off for safety reasons, not to conceal them, he said.

“There’s no part of the island where you can’t see it — it’s a cemetery,” he added. “Our intention is not to ignore that.”

It is virtually impossible to ignore; the current burial trench is right in the center of the island. The unadorned wooden coffins delivered by the trucks are stacked three-deep in trenches sectioned off in plots of 150 caskets each. There are separate plots for stillborn deaths.

Parks officials say that having rangers manage visitation will help provide context for properly understanding the need for public burials, as they do on tours of other culturally and historically sensitive sites such as Seneca Village, the Black neighborhood that was cleared to make Central Park, and Underground Railroad spots in Brooklyn.

The island is also rich with New York City history. It has been a prison, a sanitarium, a psychiatric hospital and a haven for bare-knuckle boxing bouts. During the Civil War, it was a prison for Confederate soldiers and a training ground for a regiment of Black Union Army troops. The missile platforms from the Cold War remain, capped with concrete. Spared from demolition is a Catholic chapel built in the 1930s that might be preserved as a scenic structure.

The task of training the new contracted workers in the idiosyncratic, century-old burial process fell to Martin Thompson, who supervised operations for 17 years as a correction captain and now works for the Human Resources Administration’s burial services division with the newly created job title of executive director of Hart Island.

As he stood next to the active trench, he explained that the city still uses traditional methods, including pacing off yardages to locate individual graves so they can be located in case of disinterment for reburial elsewhere by relatives. The city does around 50 of these a year, he said.

He walked toward the narrow southern section, which is visible from Long Island. He pointed out plots from the early 1990s and rows of graves of the city’s earliest AIDS patients in the 1980s. Because little was known then about the spread of AIDS, the bodies were buried separately in extra-deep graves, making them perhaps the only single plots on the island.

Ms. Hunt said she hoped that opening the island would lead to more New Yorkers opting for burials there, which the city is legally required to provide. The removal of the derelict buildings has opened up enough space, the city estimated, for several more decades of burials.

Elsie Soto, 40, who makes regular visits to the gravesite of her father, Norbert Soto, said she was pleased to see the recent upgrades.

Opening public access would help “change the narrative of Hart Island,” she said, but first the city should improve and expand visitation and stop using parks enforcement officers as mandatory escorts.

A simple, free-roaming park with a minimum of structural improvements seemed appropriate, she said, perhaps with a welcome center, bathrooms, benches and a few vending machines.

“It’s still hallowed ground and deserves respect and dignity,” she said. “A park is going to set into motion a little more respect, like, ‘OK, Hart Island is changing, it’s not what it used to be’ — and that’s the goal.”

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