by Soo Kim, The Daily Telegraph, October 23, 2017
Eerily barren, the tiny uninhabited island of Hart Island sits in the shadows of Manhattan's looming skyscrapers - a short distance but a far cry from the bright lights of New York City .
Initially named after the human heart by British cartographers because of its shape, the 131-acre island, only a mile long and 0.25 miles wide, has seen a series of incarnations since its birth; from serving as a psychiatric institution and hospital for tuberculosis patients, to an American Civil War prisoner camp.
But perhaps its most fascinating legacy has been its function as America’s largest mass burial site (and the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world), where more than a million unclaimed and unidentified bodies have been buried since 1868, when the island was first purchased by the city.
The island - still used as a burial site to this day - is located at the eastern tip of the Bronx, just off the west coast of Long Island Sound, and became a part of New York City even before its present day boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
The first reported burial took place here in 1881 and around half of those buried there are thought to be identified children under the age of five who died in the city’s hospitals. No burial ceremonies have been held since the 1950s and there are no unique markers for each plot, with one exception - the grave site of the first child to have died of AIDS in New York City, who was buried in isolation. The island is also a disposal ground for amputated body parts which are kept in boxes labelled ‘limbs’.
Those buried aren’t just the homeless or those without family, but include those who can’t afford to have a funeral or were simply unclaimed by relatives within a month of their deaths. Child actor Bobby Driscoll was laid to rest here in 1968 after no one was able to identify his body, found in his East Village apartment in Manhattan. Jewish playwright, screenwriter and director Leo Birinski was another public figure buried on Hart Island back in 1951.
It's still used today. Bodies are transported by ferry from the morgue at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital on weekday mornings, amounting to around 1,500 a year, and buried by prison inmates from the Riker’s Island jail complex in the Bronx.
While today most of the buried are identified, the historic island remains shrouded in mystery. Some of its burial records were destroyed in a fire in 1977, leaving several gaps during which no information is available.
Existing burial records can now be accessed through an online database set up by the city’s Department of Corrections, which manages the burial site.
The island is open to the public but grave visits are restricted to those who have family members buried there. General visits from non-family members are limited to a designated gazebo area on the island. Both types of visits take place only once a month and all visitors must register their request with the Department of Corrections before arriving.
Efforts to provide the public with easier access to the island have been facilitated by the Hart Island Project, which collaborated with British landscape architects Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher, and hopes to transform the burial grounds into a public park.
Talks have been ongoing since 2014 regarding proposals to transfer the management of the burial site to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation in a bid to “create a public park where citizens could visit graves” and enjoy “beautiful views” from the island, according to the vice president of the Bronx's City Island Chamber of Commerce.
Historic buildings on the island continue to be torn down to make room for more burials. Should the park proposal for the burial site be approved, it will join a series of parks that were formerly cemeteries, including Bryant Park, Madison Square Park and Washington Square Park.
Today the Hart Island Project strives to preserve “the histories of people whose identities have been erased” and pay tribute to the “lost souls” of the buried on the island via the Travelling Cloud Museum. The interactive online mapoutlines where any given person is buried on the island since 1980, according to their plot number, and the amount of time they have been there.
The Travelling Cloud Museum is an interactive online map outlining where any given person is buried on the island since 1980 and the amount of time they have been there Credit: The Hart Island Project
The developing archive aims to uncover the anonymity among the buried, inviting the public to contribute any stories they know about any of the names charted on the map, whether that be in the form of words, images, epitaph, sound or video, “so that no one is omitted from history”, the project states.