Since 1869, more than one million New Yorkers have been buried on the 131-acre strip of land called Hart Island, the nation’s largest public cemetery. They have arrived in plain wooden caskets, which inmates (and, more recently, contracted laborers) usually stack three deep in trenches. Small white posts mark the plots with reference numbers. Due to restrictions, few visitors are allowed.
“Hart Island is like a shadow of New York City,” Justin von Bujdoss, the cemetery’s chaplain, told Time’s W.J. Hennigan in 2020. “It reflects the lives of people who live on the margins—the homeless, the sickly, the neglected, the forgotten and overworked.” He added, “No one lives their lives believing it will end here.”
Now, officials are aiming to bring Hart Island, currently the site of more than 1,000 burials each year, out of the shadows by making the potter’s field into a park. The project is a way to offer the public a view into the history of the island, which is located off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. It has also held a psychiatric hospital, reform school, homeless shelter, military base and jail over the course of the 19th century.
“For decades, Hart Island has been misunderstood and stigmatized,” Sue Donoghue, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, tells Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times. “But today is a new day.”
Since its first recorded burial more than 150 years ago—24-year-old Louisa Van Slyke, a poor immigrant who died of tuberculosis—the island has been the host of the unclaimed or unidentified deceased of New York City. Recently, like other taxpayer-owned cemeteries, it has seen increasing social and economic diversity in those interred due to the steep costs of private burials, as well as a drop in American religious affiliation, reports the Washington Post’s Mary Jordan.
Public health crises have also accelerated burials at times, including the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the HIV epidemic during the 1980s, during which many funeral homes would not accept those who had died of AIDS.
These burials are what brought Melinda Hunt to Hart Island. As she sought to find friends who had disappeared during that time, she ended up at the cemetery. Now the founder of the nonprofit Hart Island Project, Hunt has been part of efforts to open the island to the public.
“It has to do with reconnecting the island to people around the globe who have someone buried there and giving them a voice,” says Hunt to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) host Nil Köksal.
Efforts began a few years ago, when the city transferred management of the cemetery from the Correction Department to the Parks Department, which has been working to demolish old buildings and trim away brush.
Later this year, the island will be free to visit, with urban park rangers leading nature classes and guided tours as part of a “managed visitation” pilot program to determine the best way to open the island to the public. New transportation projects, which may include a shuttle bus or a new water route from the Bronx, will make access to the island easier.
Still, the island will remain respectful of the dead. On burial days and the two days each month the city conducts graveside visits for family, public access will be limited.
“It will be passive, scenic open space, not a place where people disembark and go at it, just to have fun,” Mitchel Loring, a senior project planner with the Parks Department, tells the Times. Hunt has similar ideas for the space, which she hopes will be restored as a wilderness area that can teach visitors about natural burials, according to the CBC.
Marjorie Velázquez, a New York City Council member, also says honoring the dead who now reside on Hart Island is a priority.
“[It needs to be] a place where we all can reflect on the value of life and our priorities and remember that none of us escapes death,” she tells the Washington Post. “We all end up together.”