Pandemic victims are filling graves on New York's Hart Island. It isn’t the first time.

A million people are laid to rest on this New York City islet, including some who died of AIDS, tuberculosis—and now coronavirus.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020,
By Allison C. Meier
Prisoners bury unclaimed remains on New York’s Hart Island in 1963. The public cemetery has been ...

Prisoners bury unclaimed remains on New York’s Hart Island in 1963. The public cemetery has been on the island for 150 years and is now a final resting place for some coronavirus victims as New York City’s mortuaries become overwhelmed from the pandemic.

Photograph by Arthur Schatz, The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

With record-breaking coronavirus-related deaths overwhelming morgues and mortuaries in New York City, the public cemetery on Hart Island is seeing an increase in burials—from 24 a week to 24 a day. By April 13, more than 10,000 people in the city had died from COVID-19, after daily deaths surpassed 700 for five days.

Some coronavirus victims are being laid to rest at Hart Island, in Long Island Sound, just east of the Bronx. Since 1869, the wind-swept, mile-long island with rocky shores and crumbling buildings has taken in the bodies of people with no known next of kin, including those who have died from diseases of epidemic proportions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says the Hart Island cemetery is accommodating only unclaimed victims of COVID-19, along with people who have died of other causes.

“For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members,” wrote Avery Cohen, a spokesperson in the mayor’s office, in an email. “We will continue using the Island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID who fit this description will be buried on the Island over the course of this epidemic.”

After passing through private hands for more than 200 years, Hart Island was sold to New York City in 1868. A year later, 45 acres were set aside for City Cemetery, a “potter’s field” for people who couldn’t afford private funerals. Ever since, burials have been the main activity on the island, which is under the jurisdiction of New York’s Department of Corrections.

More than a thousand burials are conducted each year, and it’s estimated that a million people are interred across the island’s hundred-plus acres. The exact number is difficult to pin down: During the 1930s, graves were reused after bodies had decomposed to skeletal remains. And a fire in the 1970s destroyed records.

The burial process hasn’t changed much since the late 1800s. An 1890 photo by Jacob Riis shows coffins being lowered into a trench, and an aerial video today shows a similar scene.

It’s been the practice that every week, staff and eight inmates from nearby Rikers Island prison have come to carry out the burials, stacking coffins three deep in trenches large enough to hold up to 162 for adults and a thousand for infants and fetal remains. Numbers and sometimes names are written in heavy black marker on the pine coffins and entered into a register, so that family members can claim their loved ones later.

This month, due to a spike in coronavirus cases at Rikers Island, the city began hiring contract workers—who wear hazmat suits—to bury the dead.

De Blasio recently tweeted that the COVID-19 victims are not being buried en masse at Hart Island and would be treated with respect. “Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity,” he said.

Connection to disease

The first person buried in the Hart Island cemetery, in 1869, was Louisa Van Slyke, a 24-year-old who died of tuberculosis. The following year, when an outbreak of yellow fever tore through the city, people were quarantined on the island. And later a hospital opened on the island for quarantined patients, after New York launched the country’s first campaign to control the “white plague” (as tuberculosis was known) then afflicting one in seven Americans.

In 1985 another deadly disease brought attention to the island. Amid the fear and uncertainty of the AIDS epidemic, funeral homes closed their doors to those who succumbed to the virus, and in the early days of the epidemic, 17 victims of the new disease were buried on the island’s southern tip, far from other graves. Breaking from the norm, they were buried individually, 14 feet deep. Among their graves, the marker inscribed with “SC-B1, 1985” memorialises the first child to die of AIDS in New York City.

Many more AIDS victims were buried on Hart Island in the 1980s and ’90s. The stigma associated with the disease, and a lack of information, make exact numbers elusive. But as the New York Times reported in 2018, Hart Island’s potter’s field is “perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS.”

Most recently, before the coronavirus ravaged New York, Hart Island cemetery was designated a temporary burial site during 2008’s influenza pandemic.

A mixed history

Hart Island was once part of private estates. In 1654, physician Thomas Pell acquired the land through a treaty with the indigenous people (often called the “Siwanoy” or “Suwanak”) who lived in the area. Pell’s purchase expanded his considerable estate, which spanned the Bronx, Pelham, and New Rochelle.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the site passed through the hands of other moneyed landowners, including Oliver Delancey and John Hunter, both merchants and politicians. Over the years, the island took different names, most notably Spectacle Island for its eyeglasses-like shape and eventually Hart Island, referencing the deer that still roam the island today (“hart” is an archaic word for stag).

Besides being a public cemetery, Hart Island has served many purposes throughout its long history. Before the city purchased it, the federal government leased the land during the Civil War to train the United States Colored Troops and to hold Confederate prisoners. Later in the 19th century, the New York City Lunatic Asylum’s women’s branch treated patients there, though an 1880 report stated “no cures are reported, all the cases being chronic.” In 1905, a reformatory took in “vicious boys,” followed in later years by a World War II disciplinary camp, Cold War-era missile launch facilities, and a drug treatment center in the 1960s and ’70s.

No chance to mourn

Because the cemetery is controlled by the Department of Corrections, people haven’t been permitted to visit the graves of their loved ones.

Recently, however, advocacy organisations such as Hart Island Project and Picture the Homeless have pressed for more access. Hart Island Project won twice-monthly graveside visits for families and friends of the deceased with advanced registration. Cameras and phones are prohibited, but staff can take Polaroids.

And people have been able to pay their respects once a month by reserving a slot to visit a gazebo near the dock, where a small granite monument serves as a symbolic memorial for the thousands interred. Those opportunities are now temporarily on hold because of COVID-19.

Once the pandemic subsides, access to the cemetery may get easier. Last December, Mayor de Blasio signed four bills that transfer oversight of the island to the city’s parks department and add more public ferries. It’s widely considered a major development for those mourning the deaths of their loved ones, an experience more and more New Yorkers may soon share as the coronavirus continues to ravage the city.

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer covering culture, history, and architecture. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a comment from the New York City Mayor’s office.