Hart Island, New York’s Potter’s Field, To Finally Allow Grave Site Visits

An aerial view of Hart Island. (Doc Searles/flickr)
An aerial view of Hart Island. (Doc Searles/flickr)

Hart Island, one of the few remaining potter’s fields in the country, has for decades been entirely closed off to the general public and severely restricted even to those with family members buried there. But today, the city’s Department of Correction settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that will allow relatives and their guests to visit grave sites on the Island, according to the ACLU.

A small landmass off the coast of the Bronx where some 850,000 indigent, unclaimed or otherwise unprovisioned for New Yorkers have been laid to rest, Hart Island was designated in 1868 as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” The Department of Correction, which manages and handles burials on the island, has long maintained that highly restricted access is necessary because of security concerns. In recent years, the DOC has softened that stance ever-so-slightly, allowing family members to visit a designated memorial area away from the grave sites one weekday a month.

But relatives and friends of those buried there have countered that such limited access does not allow for mourning or closure. As Laurie Grant, an OBGYN whose stillborn daughter was buried on the island without her knowledge in 1994, asked a City Council committee in 2012, “Does a gazebo with prison guards constitute appropriate access to Hart Island?”

Like Ms. Grant’s daughter, a significant percentage of Hart Island burials were stillborns whose parents were either entirely unaware that their children were being buried at Hart Island or unaware of what burial at the “City Cemetery” entailed. Others learned that their adult relatives had been buried at Hart Island only after the fact and some were simply unable to pay for alternate arrangements.

As the Observer previously reported, numerous efforts have been made in the past to improve access to the island, including proposed legislation that would have transferred oversight to the Parks Department, a shift that advocates are still pursuing.

Under the terms of the ACLU settlement, the DOC will run a monthly weekend visit to grave sites, with two round-trip ferries with space for 50 people, starting July 19. Relatives and their guests will be escorted to grave sites by guards. Though graves are unmarked, the DOC maintains detailed burial records.

“This is a big moment in the history of Hart Island,” ACLU lawyer Christopher Dunn, who was lead counsel, told The New York Times. “It marks the opening of the island for visits from family members, and we believe it will lead to complete and open access to the island in the next year or two.”
Hart Island, New York’s Potter’s Field, To Finally Allow Grave Site Visits