Photo Courtesy David Trawin/Flickr
By Lynn Edmonds, Staff Writer
New Yorkers are now able to visit the graves of loved ones on Hart Island.
The New York City Department of Correction, which manages operations on the island, settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union on July 8 that aims to make it easier for families to pay their respects to loved ones interred there.
Since 1869, more than 750,000 dead may have been buried on Hart Island, which serves as New York City’s “Potter’s Field.” It’s the only cemetery the DOC has jurisdiction over, and nearby prisoners from Riker’s Island continue to dig the graves and maintain the island.
The 101-acre island is about five miles northeast of Fort Totten Park.
Fresh Meadows resident Elaine Joseph’s five-day-old daughter Tomika was buried on Hart Island in 1978, after she died in surgery during the winter storm that shut down New York City. Stranded in Brooklyn, Joseph could not get to Mount Sinai Hospital before they had taken her daughter’s body to be buried. Officials claimed Joseph had signed papers authorizing this.
“No I didn’t sign papers for the city ‘to take care of it,’ I wasn’t at the hospital,” Joseph said in a phone interview. “That’s what they called it, ‘take care of it.’”
For decades, Joseph wasn’t able to find out where her daughter was buried. Pre-Internet, she searched the yellow pages for “city cemetery.” Finally, six or seven years ago, she saw a news segment about Hart Island, and she began concentrating her efforts there. Joseph learned that a New York City death certificate that has the place of burial left blank, like Tomika’s was, mean that she was buried on Hart Island.
But realizing her daughter was buried on Hart Island did not immediately mean Joseph could visit her grave. Until July, mourners were restricted to visiting “the Gazebo,” a spot on the island that did not have the graves in sight, one weekday per month.
Joseph filed a lawsuit, along with seven other women, to get access to her daughter’s grave. She was the first of the plaintiffs to make the trip, doing so on March 2014. Capt. Martin Thompson, who managed operations on the island, left flowers on Tomika’s grave – or the site an expert had deduced she would have been buried at, according to the year and her age.
But that was a one-time trip.
“I want to go back when I want to go back,” Joseph said.
Tellingly enough, Joseph was going to visit her parent’s grave when she had answered the call for an interview with the Queens Tribune. She said she visited them frequently. “But the one I can’t visit is my daughter,” she said.
Under the July 8 settlement between the ACLU and the DOC, Joseph, and other relatives and guests, should be able to visit the island on one pre-determined weekend day every month. Visitors will be escorted to the location of the burial by a DOC officer, and they will be allowed to leave mementos such as teddy bears, flowers and photos. The DOC will add burial plot numbers to their online database of those interred on the island, in order to help individuals determine the location of their loved one’s remains. Additionally, the DOC will maintain an online and telephone system for scheduling visits. The first gravesite visits for family members took place on July 19. The weekday visits to the gazebo continue, and are open to the general public.
New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said the settlement “should help bring closure to the parents, children, brothers, sister and other family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial and then suffered the added insult of being forsaken by a city policy that barred family and friends from visiting.”
Public Advocate Letitia James also supported expanded visitation rights, writing a letter to the DOC in March and visiting the island in April. She released a statement the day after the settlement.
“The grieving public has been kept for far too long from getting the closure they need after a loved on is buried on Hart Island. I have pushed for expanded visitation to Hart Island because burial sites on public grounds should be open to all individuals who need to mourn. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one is aware of the undeniable importance of being able to visit their burial site,” she said.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) also adopted Hart Island as an issue in her position as chairwoman of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, and saw the settlement as a positive step.
“This change in policy will give visitors a level of comfort that they don’t get by being restricted to the Gazebo area,” she said.
DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte said he shared a common goal with the plaintiffs. “We want to enable access to the cemetery on Hart Island in a compassionate and safe manner,” he said in a press release. “We look forward to implementing this historic settlement, and pledge to work closely with the NYCLU in order to make the compassionate access it envisions a reality.”
Melinda Hunt, a visual artist and founder of the Hart Island Project, has been an advocate for increased access to Hart Island for years. She called the settlement “an important step forward.”
“Using the prison system to lock away the dead removes the dead from the community,” she said. “You are interrupting a normal commemorative process that is shared in all cultures.”
Her non-profit organization aims to bring the dead interred there back from anonymity, by creating a virtual space to tell stories about them, advocating for family members who want to access graves, and pushing for the island to be opened up to the public.
She has a larger vision for Hart Island, which she describes as a beautiful landscape, devoid of human markers.
She would like the New York City Park’s Department to take over the management of the island from the DOC. That way, the island could be opened up to the general public, and the living and the dead would not be locked away from each other, she said.
Hunt said that currently, there are still many obstacles that bar the island from being safe and easily accessible. Mass graves three coffins high, two across, and 70 feet long, remain open for up to a year, she said. She described the graves as unsafe, destructive to the ecology, and offensive to people.
“It’s a 19th century burial process, but we don’t have as many epidemics, we don’t need to bury people in huge groups like this,” Hunt said.
She invited a landscaper from England, where many city cemeteries are also parks, to discuss potential plans for Hart Island with Bronx Parks Commissioner Iris Rodriguez on July 28.
She envisions Hart Island as a place where the living could play, as well as commemorate the dead.
“People have this idea that cemeteries need to be removed. They’re in the city, but they have fences around them, you can’t go there and play ball and ride your bike, and do things that you do in a park,” Hunt said.
She also advocated for the cemetery to become the first “natural burial” site in the United States, meaning the dead, buried in biodegradable pine boxes, would provide nutrients for the soil. The dead on Hart Island are already buried in pine boxes, so it wouldn’t require much of a change, she says.
“All they have to do is reorganize how they bury people,” she said. “DOC could still dig holes, and plant trees. It’s just a different way of doing it that’s more environmentally friendly and community oriented.”
Crowley is working on legislation to transfer control of the city cemetery. She is lead sponsor of bill Int. 134 to transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island to the Parks Department, and bill Int. 133 to require the Department of Transportation to start a ferry service to the island. Crowley aims to schedule hearings in the fall.
“Parks has the ability to make Hart Island a sacred space for the public to both remember their loved ones buried there and also enjoy the green space away from the bustle of our city,” Crowley said.
Greater access might be a benefit to many New Yorkers, but the issue is most pressing for those who long to visit their loved ones.
Joseph was concerned about whether she would be able to visit under the settlement, because the volume containing Tomika’s burial records was lost in a fire, and she’s not in the doc’s database.
After contacting the DOC multiple times, Joseph got her answer. She could go.
Joseph is scheduled to visit her daughter’s grave in August.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana.