Each year, hundreds of New Yorkers are buried in trenches dug deep in the soil of Hart Island, a sliver of forgotten land in the Long Island Sound off the eastern shore of the Bronx. The people interred together in this city-run mass grave were once individuals, whether at their final hour they were homeless, forgotten, unidentified, unclaimed, stillborn infants, early AIDS victims, those who died alone, or those who could not afford a burial. They were also friends, family, and veterans, and those wishing to visit their final resting place have found it exceptionally difficult. The city purchased the island in 1868 and soon turned it into a potter’s field (a common grave for the impoverished or unidentified); access since then has been tightly controlled. Visits to grave sites are laborious to attain and characterized by strict security.
Hart Island is managed by the Department of Correction (DOC), with inmates from Rikers Island in charge of interring the dead. It is the world’s largest tax-funded cemetery, and the only one run by a jail complex. This means it’s basically operated like an extension of Rikers, with officer escorts for visitors and razor wire on its circling fence. On Wednesday, January 20, the City Council held a hearing on a bill (Intro 134) that would transfer jurisdiction to the Parks Department. This would allow for more public access, stabilization of the island’s 19th- and 20th-century historic buildings, and better ecological management of its 101 acres, including its eroding shoreline. According to the New York Times, recent erosion caused human remains to wash ashore on nearby City Island.
Despite support from council members and other advocates, both the DOC and NYC Parks are reluctant to make the change. Matt Drury, NYC Parks director of government relations, stated that the department would “welcome the opportunity” to assess the historic structures and “whether any degree of historical preservation would be appropriate,” but “we feel that these efforts can and should continue without a change in the agency jurisdiction.”
Carleen McLaughlin, director of legislative affairs and special projects at the DOC, affirmed that the department “is capable of providing the burial and disinterment services that the city requires” and said it was “in the city’s interest to have these services uninterrupted in a city cemetery.”
Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the City Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, is a proponent of the transfer. At the hearing, she listed management issues that need to be addressed on the island — issues which are generally not the focus of a penal system department: “reducing the size of mass graves so that they can be closed more quickly; using plantings to mark where the graves are; and taking necessary measures to prevent soil erosion. The DOC again has no expertise to share with regards to such reforms.”
Drury held out, arguing that a transfer “could cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars” and adding that none of the burial sites managed by NYC Parks are currently active (such as former potter’s field Washington Square Park, where around 20,000 people were interred, and the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park, although a few burials are still conducted there).
A third option was presented at the Wednesday hearing, an alternative proposed by Melinda Hunt, artist and founder of the Hart Island Project, which she started in 2011 to advocate for accessibility to the burial space. She discussed a landscape strategy created with two UK-based landscape architects, Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher, to transform the island into a public park and green burial space.
“We believe there is a market for natural urban burials, and the city could sell plots on Hart Island and eventually other park locations,” Hunt told Hyperallergic. “Green burials pay to preserve parkland in rural areas. It could work in the municipal parks as well.”
According to the DOC, individual pine coffins are buried on Hart Island in large plots, with each plot able to hold “150 adult coffins or 1,000 infant coffins.” Burials “average between 2,000 – 3,000 yearly (the total for both categories).” Hunt and the landscape architects see this as a chance for a forward-thinking design solution to the invisibility of Hart Island to most of New York City.
“If someone’s buried kind of close to the community where they live, that community tends to care for that greenspace over the long-term,” Hunt said. “[The landscape architects] were very interested in Hart Island, as it’s already a natural burial facility because there’s no embalming and it’s a plain pine box. They wanted to consider how New York could reorganize Hart Island so that they could engage the families with the city cemetery, so they would begin caring for the graves and visiting and supporting it as a natural burial facility.”
For now, the landscape strategy is purely conceptual, but an important one in encouraging a different perspective on the long-overlooked place. Last year, the Hart Island Project launched the Traveling Cloud Museum, an online memorial that harnesses existing GPS burial coordinates in tandem with crowdsourced storytelling. Those same cloud-based records could easily be applied to a green burial space with both city- and privately funded interments, so that instead of a tombstone there would be a coordinate and potential for a digital tribute attached to each location. Additional plantings could mark closed graves, helping restore the ecology of the island.
Trenches at Hart Island are now larger thanks to the use of bulldozers, and that means graves are staying open longer. Last July, a federal class-action lawsuit spearheaded by the NYCLU finally won permission for family members to visit grave sites; previously visits had been confined to a gazebo for viewing the space (the public can still register for the gazebo visits). Yet visiting a gravesite on Hart Island can mean standing by an open trench filled with caskets.
According to a report by the Hart Island Project, graves for adults may stay open for 20 days while being filled, and the baby burial trenches sit uncovered for even longer — Plot 67 was apparently open for over a year and a half. The report includes an image of an infant mass grave that was exposed long enough for plants to grow through the small coffins. In the green burial plan, plots would be filled each day or every two days and trees planted all over the site to facilitate a 25-year decomposition, mending an island that’s been gouged with holes for decades and creating a lush park space in the process. In a city running out of burial space, this could offer an alternative to expensive plots in other cemeteries and to cremation, which turns corpses to ash, ending their potential to fuel new life through plant growth. There’s currently no exclusively green burial option within New York City. Hart Island could become that place — a meaningful memorial center open to the whole city, not just those who fall through the cracks.
Hart Island represents a side of the city that’s often neglected: its poverty, its illness, its resistance to change. In 2015, 1,137 people were laid to rest there, using much the same technique as 19th-century mass burials. There are no markers and no attempts to create a place of peace — just white pipes jammed in the mud, each indicating where 150 people have been buried. In 2014, I collaborated with Bess Lovejoy on an op-ed in the New York Times, and we concluded that “Hart Island offers us a powerful opportunity to preserve the memory of the departed, and to mourn in a place where so many have already been forgotten once.” Green burial could be this opportunity to restore dignity to the dead on Hart Island; it represents one of the positive possibilities for the grim place.
Learn more about Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, at the Hart Island Project.