Hart Island is New York City’s potter’s field, a resting place of last resort for those who can’t afford a private burial. Many New Yorkers don’t know about the island, even though about a million people have been buried here since the mid 1800s, but it’s on RPA’s radar. With 131 acres of green space a stone’s throw away from Orchard Beach and City Island, we’ve been calling for it to be integrated into the city’s open space network. And so it was with great delight that we heard about City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced his support for turning Hart Island into a more publicly accessible cemetery.
The first question to answer: does New York City still need to use an abandoned island as a potter’s field? Indigent burials have substantially declined in recent decades and thanks to technology, identities can be better determined and next-of-kin more easily found. Out of the over 50,000 people who die in New York City each year, only about 3% are buried publicly on Hart Island. Those burials could easily be accommodated at another cemetery in the city, or in nearby locations on Long Island or the Hudson Valley. Literally any other cemetery in the region would be more accessible than one on an abandoned island whose only access is by ferry.
Accessibility to Hart is also hampered by the fact that the City uses inmates from Rikers Island to bury the dead there. The island is controlled by the New York City Department of Correction, which means that visiting the island is more like visiting a prison than a cemetery. Visiting days are limited to once a month, arrangements have to be made well in advance, and visitors have to go through screenings and be continually escorted by Correction officers during the visit. Unless it’s one of six pre-approved categories, visitors need to petition the Department of Correction to leave mementos on the gravesite of loved ones. While Correction staff do their best to make this situation as respectful as possible, it is still not close to the proper way to treat the deceased or their families. The bottom line is that the job of the Department of Correction should be to guard inmates and manage jails – not bury the dead and manage cemeteries.
Having civilians do the burials, whether on Hart Island or at a more accessible location, would also likely hep the City’s budget. Right now, inmates need to be accompanied by several Department of Correction staff and be securely transported to and from Rikers Island by bus to City Island, and then by Ferry to Hart Island about three times a week. It’s tough to think of a more expensive way to run our public burial ground.
There is currently a bill pending in City Council to transfer jurisdiction of Hart to the Parks Department, a bill that RPA wholeheartedly backs. This would just be a beginning – to become a true open space asset for New York City, some capital improvements on Hart Island will be necessary. Abandoned buildings will need to be secured and we’ll need to think about how to access the island more easily than by ferry. But these are things that can be addressed. After all, in the space of just 10 years New York City has managed to turn another abandoned island into a park visited by 800,000 people every summer.