Hart Island contains New York City's 131-acre (0.53 km2) potter's field, or public cemetery. The potter's field is variously described as the largest tax-funded cemetery in the United States, the largest-such in the world, and one of the largest mass graves in the United States. At least 850,000 have been buried on the island, though since the 2000s, the burial rate has declined to fewer than 1,500 a year.[ One-third of annual burials are infants and stillborn babies, which has been reduced from a proportion of one-half since the Children's Health Insurance Program began to cover all pregnant women in New York State in 1997. According to a 2006 New York Times article, there had been 1,419 burials at the potter's field during the previous year: of these, 826 were adults, 546 were infants and stillborn babies, and 47 were dismembered body parts.
The dead are buried in trenches. Babies are placed in coffins, which are stacked in groups of 100, measuring five coffins deep and usually in twenty rows. Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size, and are stacked in sections of 150, measuring three coffins deep in two rows. There are seven sizes of coffins, which range from 1 to 7 feet (0.30 to 2.13 m) long. Each box is labeled with an identification number, the person's age, ethnicity, and the place where the body was found, if applicable. Inmates from the Rikers Island jail are paid $0.50 per hour to bury bodies on Hart Island.
The bodies of adults are frequently disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through DNA, photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner. There were an average of 72 disinterments per year from 2007 to 2009. As a result, the adults' coffins are staggered to expedite removal. Children, mostly infants, are rarely disinterred. Regulations stipulate that the coffins generally must remain untouched for 25 years, except in cases of disinterment.
Approximately half of the burials are of children under five who are identified and died in New York City's hospitals, where the mothers signed papers authorizing a "City Burial." The mothers were generally unaware of what the phrase meant. Many other interred have families who live abroad or out of state and whose relatives search extensively; these searches are made more difficult because burial records are currently kept within the prison system. An investigation into the handling of the infant burials was opened in response to a criminal complaint made to the New York State Attorney General's Office in 2009.
Burial records on microfilm at the Municipal Archives indicate that until 1913, burials of unknowns were in single plots, and identified adults and children were buried in mass graves. In 1913, the trenches became separate to facilitate the more frequent disinterment of adults. The potter's field is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled "limbs". Ceremonies have not been conducted at the burial site since the 1950s. In the past, burial trenches were re-used after 25–50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. Since then, however, historic buildings have been demolished to make room for new burials. Because of the number of weekly interments made at the potter's field at the expense of taxpayers, these mass burials are straightforward and are conducted by Rikers Island inmates, who stack the coffins in two rows, three high and 25 across, and each plot is marked with a concrete marker. A tall, white peace monument was erected by New York City prison inmates at the top of a hill that was known as "Cemetery Hill" following World War II and was dedicated in October 1948.
Many burial records were destroyed by arson in late July 1977. Remaining records of burials before 1977 were transferred to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan; while records after that date are still kept in handwritten ledgers, these are now transcribed into a digital database that is partially available online. A Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request for 50,000 burial records was granted to the Hart Island Project in 2008. A lawsuit, concerning "place of death" information redacted from the Hart Island burial records, was filed against New York City's government in July 2008 and was settled out of court in January 2009.
Notable people buried
Those interred on Hart Island are not necessarily homeless or indigent. Many of the dead either had families who could not afford the expenses of private funerals or were not claimed by relatives within a month of death. Notable burials include the playwright, film screenwriter, and director Leo Birinski, who died alone and in poverty, and was buried there in 1951. The American novelist Dawn Powell was buried on Hart Island in 1970, five years after her death, after her remains had been used for medical studies and the executor of her estate refused to reclaim them. Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll, who was found dead in 1968 in an East Village tenement, was buried on Hart Island because his remains could not be identified in a timely fashion. T-Bone Slim, the labor activist, songwriter, and Wobbly, was buried on Hart Island after his body was found floating in the Hudson River.
Founded by New York artist Melinda Hunt in 1994,the Hart Island Project is a nonprofit organization devoted to improving access to the island and its burial data. The organization helps families obtain copies of public burial records; arranges visits to grave sites; and operates a website to help people find relatives interred on the island
Hart Island - Last Resort
Hart Island is a graveyard of last resort. Since 1869, New York City has owned and operated this potter’s field—the largest in the country. City workers put unidentified or unclaimed corpses in simple wooden coffins, load them onto a ferry and entomb them in trenches across the island. The homeless, indigent and stillborn all lie within eyesight of the hyper-kinetic, high-rolling inhabitants of the Manhattan skyscrapers across the water. “Hart Island is like a shadow of New York City,” says Justin von Bujdoss, 45, the cemetery’s chaplain. “It reflects the lives of people who live on the margins—the homeless, the sickly, the neglected, the forgotten and overworked.” Over a century and a half, more than a million people have been buried in unmarked graves on the island, including from past epidemics like tuberculosis, the 1918 flu and AIDS.
Lost in the Pandemic: Inside New York City’s Mass Graveyard on Hart Island
At the height of the outbreak last spring, New York’s hospital morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed, and the mass graves on Hart Island emerged as an expedient option for the city’s fast-rising number of dead. More coffins were stacked aboard the ferry dispatched to the dock here. More trenches were dug. Through the end of October, 2,009 New Yorkers have been buried on Hart Island in 2020, more than double last year’s total of 846.