NYC Council considers turning mass gravesite on Hart Island into a city park

May 31, 2019

Photo of Hart Island via Flickr

One of the country’s largest burial ground may become a city park. The New York City Council is considering making Hart Island, an island located off of the Bronx coast where roughly one million people have been buried since the Civil War, more accessible to visitors. Because the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) currently maintains the site and hires inmates from Rikers Island to bury bodies there, access remains restricted. During a hearing Thursday, the City Council introduced a package of legislation aimed at improving Hart Island, including one bill that would transfer control of the land from the DOC to the city’s parks department.

Many of those buried on Hart Island are New Yorkers who were unable to afford private burials or who were unclaimed by relatives. Those who wish to visit deceased family members are required to apply through the DOC. After they get approved and arrive at the island, visitors are escorted by staff and must surrender all possessions, including cell phones.

Family members are allowed to schedule trips, via ferry, to Hart Island just two days each month, one Thursday and one Saturday. After 150 years, City Council Corey Johnson said it’s time to improve the burial process and the physical condition of Hart Island.

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

Under Parks Department control, security measures could be eliminated at Hart Island and the city could run ferries there to make it easier to visit. Officials and advocates also argue that the agency is better equipped to maintain and improve the shoreline and green space of the island.

A bill to transfer control of Hart Island to the Parks Department was first introduced in 2012 and failed. It was reintroduced in 2014 but again failed because it lacked support from either agency. Council Members Yandis Rodriguez and Mark Levine again took up the cause last May.

During Thursday’s hearing, the Parks Department expressed interest in taking control of the island, according to the New York Times. Matt Drury, the director of government relations for the agency, said the Parks Department would support the jurisdiction transfer once the city stopped burials there.

“This is a massive and complicated undertaking,” Drury said. “The city wants to make sure this is fully thought out.” According to city officials, the land can only continue to hold up to 10 more years of burials.

Johnson gave the DOC, Parks Department, and the Department of Human Resources 30 days to come up with solutions for visitors while the bills are reviewed, amNY reported.


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