As Hart Island nears capacity, city seeks new public cemetery sites

September 25, 2019

Photo by cisc1970 on Flickr

The city is looking for land to build a new public cemetery for residents who were unclaimed or unable to afford a burial. The city’s Human Resources Administration on Tuesday issued a request for information (RFI) from private burial companies to develop ideas for new cemeteries, citing concerns over the lack of space on Hart Island, land located off the Bronx where more than one million people have been buried since the Civil War. The RFI comes as the City Council recently finalized a package of bills to reform the Island, as well as the city’s process for public burials.

Hart Island, one of the country’s largest burial grounds, will reach capacity in roughly eight to 10 years, according to the city. As the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration push to end public burials at the overcrowded site, the HRA will look for alternative locations.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the agency is “considering several options,” with possibilities including burials at more than one location, cremation, or a combination of both. Any new site will need to be ADA accessible with language interpretation services, according to the request.

“This RFI will help begin to resolve how the City will continue to carry out this critical and solemn role, including through options such as burials at a different location (with the possibility of new locations), cremation, some other potential solution, or some combination thereof,” the request reads.

In May, the Council introduced a package of bills aimed at improving Hart Island, including one that would transfer control of the site from the Department of Corrections to the city’s Parks Department. Currently, visiting deceased family members on Hart Island is not easy.

Family members need to apply through the DOC, get approved, be escorted by staff, and surrender all possessions, like cell phones, to DOC staff. Plus, trips are offered just two days each month, one Thursday and one Saturday.

“It’s heartbreaking that a million people are buried on Hart Island and there is only one Saturday a month that people can visit,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted in May. “It’s an embarrassment, it’s undignified, and it needs to change immediately. We must do better.”

If Hart Island was controlled by Parks, officials argue security measures could be eliminated, ferries could run to make visiting easier, and the green space on the site could be better maintained. The proposed legislation would also form a task force on public burials and create an office dedicated to helping New Yorkers with the process.

According to Politico NY, the bills are ready for passage, but a spokesperson said they are not on the schedule for this week’s meeting and could still change ahead of the vote. The legislation will likely pass in the coming weeks.

City Council Member Mark Levine told the WSJ he was surprised when he heard the city’s request to open a new public cemetery. “The problem isn’t that we’re burying on Hart Island, the problem is it’s a Department of Correction secure facility that’s made it impossible to have open, dignified access for families,” Levine told the newspaper.

[Via Politico NYWSJ]


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