March 20, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Hart Island: New York City’s Mass Graveyard


Hart Island

Hart island is the final resting place for more than a million unclaimed bodies. The state has been using this potter’s field for over a century.

From convicts and homeless people to COVID-19 victims, the island is most known for its mass burial sites, but it will soon take a new direction.

gravesite and man split image

Location

Hart Island is located at the western end of Long Island Sound, in the northeastern Bronx in New York City. It is part of the Pelham Islands archipelago and is east of City Island.

Hart Island, Bronx Ny - 2010Doc Searls, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Geography

The small island measures approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) long by 0.33 miles (0.53 km) wide at its widest point. It is isolated from the rest of the city: there is no electricity and it can only be accessed by ferry.

Aerial view of Hart Island, New York. - 2012Bjoertvedt, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

History

Before it became a public burial site, Hart Island had many previous uses. It was originally home to the Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans.

It later served as a military training site, a POW camp, a quarantine station, a psychiatric hospital site, an industrial school site, a workhouse site, a prison, and so much more.

Convalescent Hospital On Hart Island - 1877Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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The Island of Exile

Basically, Hart Island had always been used as a dumping ground for people who were not exactly welcomed in society—whether troubled or infectious.

Camp Syracuse, a recruit camp outside Syracuse, New York - 1917Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Picryl

The First of the Burials

The first burials are said to have taken place way back in 1869, when the island was used as a public cemetery for poor people, or for people whose bodies were unclaimed after their demise.

This also included a lot of veterans.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, - circa 1890Jacob Riis, Wikimedia Commons

Gravediggers

Before civilian contractors were hired in 2020, the gravediggers were inmates from the nearby Rikers Island jail. They were paid fifty cents an hour to bury bodies on the island.

Rikers Island sign - 2012Matt Green, Flickr

Disease-ridden Bodies

In 1985, only a few years after AIDS was discovered in the U.S., the island became the final resting place for anyone who passed from the AIDS-related illness.

Hart Island, Bronx NY - 2015Adam Moss, Flickr

Fear of Contagion

In that year alone, sixteen bodies of people who passed from AIDS were buried in individual, deep graves on a remote section of the southern tip of the island.

At the time it was feared that their remains may be contagious.

Diggin a Grave - 2009Eli Duke, Flickr

Burial of Disease-ridden Bodies

During the growing AIDS epidemic, diseased bodies were delivered in body bags and buried by inmates wearing protective jumpsuits.

When it was finally learned that the bodies could not spread HIV, the city started burying them in mass graves like the others.

People wearing medical gloves and personal protective equipment.Photo Smoothies, Shutterstock

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The First Child

Hart Island is also the final resting place for the first child to pass in New York City of AIDS-related illness. The little one’s grave is marked as “SC (special child) B1 (Baby 1) 1985.”

Since then, thousands of people who have died of AIDS have been buried on Hart Island, but the precise number is unknown.

Hart Island,Bronx NY - 2015Adam Moss, Flickr

No More Residential Facilities

In 1991, the city ended all other uses of the island except as a public cemetery. The cemetery was allotted 131-acres.

At this point, the cemetery was provided mostly for diseased bodies, and bodies of unclaimed people.

Hart Island, The Bronx - 2010cisc1970, Flickr

Reputation

Hart Island is often described as the largest tax-funded cemetery in the United States, the largest-such in the world, and one of the largest mass graves in the United States.

Hart Island ,NY - 2015Adam Moss, Flickr

The Burials: Trenches

Most of the bodies were buried in trenches, piled on top of each other. Diseased bodies were buried separately, or on remote parts of the island.

Eventually, basic wooden coffins were introduced.

The Burial Trenches - 1918Library of Congress, Picryl

The Burials: Babies

Babies are placed in coffins, which are stacked in groups of 100, measuring five coffins deep and usually in twenty rows.

Hart Island,Bronx NY - 2015Adam Moss, Flickr

The Burials: Adults

Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size, and are stacked in sections of 150, measuring three coffins deep in two rows and laid out in a grid system.

The Burial Trenches - 1918Library of Congress, Picryl

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Coffin Specifics

There are seven sizes of coffins, which range from 1 to 7 feet long.

Each box is labeled with an identification number, the person's age, ethnicity, and the place where the body was found, if applicable.

An old wooden coffin with a cross on top.Jarp2, Shutterstock

Claiming Bodies

Bodies of adults are often dug up when families are able to locate their relative’s bodies through DNA, photographs and fingerprints that are kept on file.

This is most common after pandemics when bodies are buried quickly and unclaimed until a later date.

Military personnel place a body bag - 1978The U.S. National Archives, Picryl

Unearthed Bodies

There was an average of 72 bodies being dug up and claimed per year from 2007 to 2009. As a result, the adults' coffins were staggered to speed up removal.

It was rare for children’s bodies to be unearthed.

Personnel remove body bag containing the remains - 1978The U.S. National Archives, Picryl

Baby Burials

About half of the burials on Hart Island are of children under five, who passed in hospitals. These babies were identified prior to burial as the mothers signed papers authorizing a “City burial”.

Usually, the mothers were unaware of what that meant and didn’t realize their babies’ bodies were being buried in a mass public grave.

Baby in hospitalVidal Balielo Jr., Pexels

Unclaimed Bodies

Another significant number of bodies are of those whose families live abroad.

Some of those families extensively search for the burial site of their loved ones, but find it challenging as Hart Island’s burial records are kept within the prison system.

Man and woman hugging each other at funeral.Ivan Samkov, Pexels

Amputated Body Parts

Hart’s Island is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled "limbs". These typically include body parts that do not have a body to match them with.

Medical waste container - 2013Global Environment Facility, Flickr

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Regulations

Regulations specify that the coffins generally must remain untouched for 25 years, except in cases of unearthing.

After the 25 years though, the graves can be used again.

View of an American cemetery on a battlefield - 1918State Archives of North Carolina, Picryl

Reusing Burial Trenches

In the past, burial trenches were re-used after 25–50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains.

Since then, however, historic buildings have been demolished to make room for new burials.

View of Hart Island during press preview - 2023lev radin, Shutterstock

The Flu Pandemic

In 2008, the island was the designated site for mass burials during a particularly extreme flu pandemic. A massive trench was dug to accommodate up to 20,000 bodies during this time.

A burial team is lowering the body in cemetery - 2015UNMEER, Flickr

Covid-19 Pandemic

In 2020, Hart Island was once again the designated site for mass burials during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was initially set up as a “just in case” burial site if mortuaries were to become overwhelmed.

However, this happened quicker than expected.

View of monument erected in memory of victims of pandemic worldwide on Hart Island - 2023lev radin, Shutterstock

Covid-19 Pandemic Burials

Preparations for mass graves began as early as the end of March 2020, not long after the Pandemic started.

Losses at home were increasing significantly, though the corpses were not tested for the virus.

View of white marks of burial plots with ruins of chapel in the background on Hart Island  - 2023lev radin, Shutterstock

Private Contractors

At this time, private contractors were hired to replace inmates, as the death toll was rapidly rising by the day, and fear of contagion was present once again.

Digging for Burial - 2011elycefeliz, Flickr

Covid-19: Unclaimed Bodies

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there were an overwhelming number of unclaimed bodies. It is estimated that nearly 3,000 bodies were buried on Hart Island in 2020, as a result.

Funeral officials bury the bodies of Covid-19 patients - 2021Kuncoro Widyo Rumpoko, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

A Time Sensitive Matter

During the pandemic, NYC was inundated with bodies—not just from the virus.

Any bodies that were not immediately claimed were sent to Hart Island in their cheap wooden coffins, and buried on top of each other in the newly dug mass graves.

This was the only option as bodies were piling up quicker than the mortuaries could receive them.

Members of a burial team disinfect each other after they carried the body - 2014UNMEER, Flickr

Bodies Claimed in 2020

The mass graves were dug strategically to allow for easy exhumation, as the city recognized that not enough time was given for bodies to be claimed.

However, since 2020, only 32 bodies from Hart Island were claimed by loved ones.

Man and woman standing beside the wooden coffin.cottonbro studio, Pexels

Total Bodies Buried on Hart Island

Currently, the estimated total of bodies buried on Hart Island, since its beginning, is well over one million. 

Even after the covid-19 pandemic has quieted, the island continues to bury unclaimed bodies. But that’s not its only purpose anymore.

A burial team is carrying the body to a grave - 2015UNMEER, Flickr

Hart Island’s New Plan

For many decades, the burials that took place on Hart Island were kept relatively secret. It was not a common topic of discussion.

The covid-19 pandemic changed that, and it has gone from New York’s most forbidden place to a possible location for public access.

An aerial view of the tranquil but secretive beauty of Hart Island, nestled in the Long Island Sound on a sunny day.Audley C Bullock, Shutterstock

Hart Island’s Guided Tours

In 2023, NYC Parks' Urban Park Rangers started offering free walking tours of the island twice per month.

Registration is required through an online form and participants will be selected by lottery.

Hart Island during press preview - 2023lev radin, Shutterstock

Gravesite Visits

For people who wish to visit the final resting place of a loved one, the City offers private gravesite visits to Hart Island twice a month, on weekends.

White marks of burial plots and cross in the background for boys reformatory on Hart Island.lev radin, Shutterstock

Finding Loved Ones on Hart Island

Hart Island records are searchable through the Hart Island database, which allows the public to determine if a loved one is buried on the island.

Records previous to 1977 may not be found.

Worried woman on the laptopAnna Shvets, Pexels

Burial Records

If someone was buried at Hart Island, their death certificate will say "City Burial" or "Hart Island" in the burial information.

Close up of a doctor reading a diagnosis.Karolina Grabowska, Pexels

Removing Remains from Hart Island

If a family confirms their loved one is buried on the island and they wish to transfer the remains somewhere else, they may make arrangements with a licensed funeral home to request a disinterment.

There is no fee for this. But the disinterment is conditional on whether or not the remains can be easily recovered.

People standing before a grave.RDNE Stock project, Pexels

Final Thoughts

Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, is currently the burial site for millions of bodies—and counting—most of which are in unmarked mass graves.

Although it had numerous intriguing uses over the years, the island’s disposal of the unclaimed deceased remains its most well-known purpose.

View of Hart Island during press preview - 2023lev radin, Shutterstock


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