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The Isolated Island Where New York's Unknown and Unclaimed Are Buried

Hundreds of thousands of bodies lie under the ground in Hart Island, but despite the efforts of activists, it remains difficult for families to find out if their relatives are buried there.

Tess A. Owen

On the third Thursday of every month at 9 AM, you can visit Hart Island, a massive potter's field in New York City, but only if you've made a reservation in advance.

At the bottom of Fordham Avenue on City Island in the Bronx, past the Nautical Museum and rows of quaint clapboard houses, sits the gate to the pier. To the right is a construction site on its way to becoming yet another luxury housing tower. When I arrived on a cold day in December, the drills had not yet started and over everything lay an eerie silence, broken only by the sound of buoys rubbing up against the hulls of anchored boats. The ferry operator, who called himself Captain Marc, later told me that he can't imagine the new residents will like "all of this," gesturing at the rusty ferry (which he said is the oldest in the Staten Island fleet) and beyond, at Hart Island.

Hart Island is often called the biggest tax-funded cemetery in the world—it's where bodies end up when they are unidentified, or when no one wants to or can pay for their funeral arrangements. Most of the million souls resting there are as invisible in death as they were in life. They existed on the margins and in the shadows of society—the down and out, the disenfranchised, and the poor. Many are John and Jane Does, lying in the ground, forgotten. The site and burial records are maintained by the NYC Department of Corrections; on weekdays, inmates from Rikers Island get ferried over to dig graves.

The 131-acre stretch of land is visible from City Island, a dusty corner of the Bronx with the feel of a sleepy fishing village. You can see a few red brick buildings dotted about the island from a distance. They're empty, dilapidated—in the past, they've functioned as a juvenile detention center, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and a psychiatric hospital.

Despite its proximity to the city, Hart Island is notoriously inaccessible. Until quite recently, family members seeking closure (as well as journalists) were generally forbidden from visiting. Even now, visitations are limited and highly regulated. Earlier this month, the DOC apparently rejected a request from the BBC to visit the island: Reporter Alina Simone wrote that she was told by Robin Campbell, the press secretary for the DOC, that journalists are not allowed to go there.


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(I went without being asked why I wanted to visit. The official website for Hart Island does not explicitly state that members of the press are prohibited from visiting, and instead recommends that you call the Department's Office of Public Information. We reached out to Campbell for comment by phone and email, but he did not respond by the time of publication.*)

Since the mid 90s, Melinda Hunt, a Canadian-born artist and filmmaker, has been a champion for the rights of the deceased and grieving. She now runs the Hart Island Project, based out of Peekskill in upstate New York. When I visited Hunt, she was about to launch the Traveling Cloud Museum, a virtual memorial that aims to reconstruct the identities of those buried on the island in bureaucracy and misfortune.

"It's a little bit like Facebook," Hunt said, "but for the dead."

In 2008, after years of filing Freedom of Information requests and criminal complaints, Hunt gained access to 50,000 burial records dating back to 1977. All records prior to that year were destroyed in a fire. The city initially challenged her request on the grounds that the information contained in the documents was confidential. But because the cause of the death isn't actually listed on the records, Hunt eventually won her case.

"We were lucky," Hunt said. "It's confidential to know how someone died but it's not confidential to know if someone's dead or not."

Hunt now has a total of 65,000 burial records. With the help of volunteers, she's worked to digitize the weathered, handwritten data, all of which is accessible online through the Traveling Cloud Museum at hartisland.net. After a short intro of footage from the island, you're invited to look at the records, scroll through pages and pages of names hovering in virtual space, waiting for recognition.

The grave trenches are now digitally mapped using a global positioning system—an innovation that was brought about in part thanks to Hunt's activism. This means that the burial data listed online corresponds to a specific grave and plot position, which can then be located on a map.

The Traveling Cloud Museum. Photo Courtesy of the Hart Island Project

Technology played a big role in Hunt's conceptualization of the virtual memorial site. "I got thinking about the cloud and Google Maps, and how people's identities are just sort of floating over this island," she told me.

There's a ticking clock next to each name that corresponds to the amount of time a person has been buried and unclaimed on Hart Island. To stop the clock and "save" someone from anonymity, you can contribute an anecdote, a photo, or an epitaph to their burial record.

Hunt was inspired by the collaborative nature of oral histories, and the ways that they often give voices to the past that might otherwise sit in the shadows forever. The Dutch engineers who designed the site thought that the ticking clock feature accommodated Hunt's vision while adding a gaming feature, providing an extra incentive for people to participate.

Christine Yalanis became the first person to contribute a story to the Traveling Cloud Museum after it launched in the first week of December.

In 2011, Yalanis discovered that her father, Roy Foss—who died 12 years earlier—was buried on Hart Island. She was a little girl when her parents split, and Foss was a Vietnam War vet with a terrible drinking problem. Yalanis remembers that he would beat her mother; after he left he "bounced around," sometimes staying with friends or, in fair weather, living in Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

"Even the babies who are buried there have a story." –Christine Yalanis

Yalanis's uncle heard rumors that his brother was dead. The family went to the park in Bushwick and asked around, but no one knew where he was. Years later, Yalanis's stepfather embarked on an genealogy project and he was interested in tracing Foss's side of the family, which reignited the search for her father. They hired a detective who discovered that he was indeed dead, and buried on Hart Island.

The detective told Yalanis that Foss was found with five times the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream. He'd been hit by an oncoming L Train at the Sutter Avenue Station after apparently drunkenly stumbling into the tracks. Foss had been a John Doe until the medical examiners were able to identify him by the fingerprints he'd provided to the government when he was drafted. Yalanis thinks he probably rode the subway at night to stay warm.

But even though he'd been abusive toward her mother and neglected to maintain a relationship with her, Yalanis felt uncomfortable with the idea of her father remaining anonymous forever.

On the Traveling Cloud Museum, Yalanis offers a short and honest summary of her father's life. She concludes, "Even though I didn't know him well as a dad, I mourn his loss and the fact he never recovered from his disease."

Roy Foss's Burial Record on the Traveling Cloud Museum. Photo courtesy of the Hart Island Project

Commemorating the people buried on Hart Island is simply a way of acknowledging their lives, according to Yalanis, regardless of how turbulent, brief, or unfortunate they may have been. "I just feel like (Foss) had a life, everyone has a story," she told me. "Even the babies who are buried there have a story."

That said, not everyone can stop the clock and offer a forgotten life a place in history. The fact that all records prior to 1977 were destroyed means that there are many who may never know for certain if a family member was buried on the island.

Dawnn Mitchell, a filmmaker now based in Georgia, has spent a lot of her life thinking about her great-grandmother, Pocahontas Royster, who died in 1932 in New Jersey. Royster's family was very poor, and Mitchell believes that she was buried on Hart Island, but isn't certain.

As an African American, Mitchell said that knowing her heritage is very important. "Not all of us know where we came from. We're former Africans brought here as slaves without any records, who we were born to, what our names were. I want to trace my roots," she said. "It's important to me to have this closeness."

In an ideal world, Mitchell would have her grandmother's body exhumed and brought to Georgia to be buried properly nearby. Unfortunately for Mitchell, this is an impossible dream.

"People feel that they did something wrong in allowing someone to be buried there." –Melinda Hunt

Roberta Omin, a resident New Yorker who wanted to visit the grave of her brother, David Joseph, encountered similar frustrations and roadblocks.

Joseph died at three days old in 1951 after a premature birth. At the time, in the event of a stillborn or premature baby the parents were offered what was called a "city burial." Hunt told me this was problematic—mothers were often asked too soon after birth and were still under the influence of narcotics, which meant the decision was made under duress, or sometimes by the father. The decision to accept a city burial was irreversible, whereupon a baby's body would be placed in a small pine box and taken to the office of the medical examiner for an autopsy.

Omin was six at the time of her brother's death. Forty years later, she saw an article in the New York Times about Hart Island. For the first time she said she started thinking of Joseph as her brother, rather than her mother's son. She suddenly felt very sad thinking that he'd been buried there, alone, all that time.

Hunt believes that the need to commemorate somebody is less about reaching "closure" and more about responsibility. "They want to visit the island to complete the process of what they feel they owe to that person," she said. "People feel that they did something wrong in allowing someone to be buried there."

After reading the Times article, Omin sent away for David Joseph's death certificate and requested permission from the DOC to visit the island and place a small marker on his grave. But her request was denied and his death certificate doesn't exist—it was destroyed in the 1977 fire.

It wasn't until she heard Hunt speaking about Hart Island during a radio segment on WNYC that Omin decided to reach out. In 2007, the Bronx-based grassroots organization Picture the Homeless was granted limited visitation rights to Hart Island. At that time, according to Hunt, the DOC insisted that visitors to the island declare a religious affiliation. Hunt, who had accompanied Picture the Homeless during one of their visits, complained to the City Council in 2010 on the grounds that it was illegal to designate a nonprofit to screen people based on their religious identities.

"You're constantly having to sue the city to get anywhere," said Hunt.

A corrections officer was waiting for me on the shore by a lectern. He had a long white beard and a missing tooth—a local St. Peter standing by the pearly gates, ready to check you into a low-rent afterworld.

Following Hunt's complaints, the island opened up a little more to the general public. Nevertheless, even today, visitors are forbidden to bring any recording devices, cameras, or smartphones. I left my backpack next to the aquarium in the "office," a dimly lit modular building.

It takes ten minutes to cross over to the island, whose scrubby shore is lined with weathered wooden docking and a few abandoned motorboats lying in the beach grass. A corrections officer was waiting for me on the shore by a lectern. He had a long white beard and a missing tooth—a local St. Peter standing by the pearly gates, ready to check you into a low-rent afterworld.

He checked my name against the one written in red ink on a crumpled piece of paper that he pulled out of his pocket, and asked me to sign into the visitors' book. I was then ushered up a walkway lined with small ceramic angels and saints. Visitors are restricted to a very small gazebo a short distance from the shore. The gazebo is surrounded by a small garden, which is enclosed by a white picket fence.

I asked the bearded corrections officer why we weren't allowed to roam beyond the gazebo. He replied in a non-negotiable tone: "Because those are the rules."

There's a gravestone within the garden, with a few stones balancing on top of it. Omin told me that Jews traditionally place stones by graves out of respect for the dead. When she finally visited the island last summer, on a beautiful day in June, she brought an assortment of stones given to her by family and friends, including one that her mother had painted to look like a ladybug a long time ago.

There are wild flowers that grow on the island. "White and yellow, like Queen Anne's Lace and buttercups," as Omin put it. She picked some and made a small bouquet to place down with the stones. Then she read aloud a Kaddish, an ancient Jewish prayer that is often recited for the dead, that she had written for her brother:

David Joseph,
May your soul rest in peace knowing you are no longer forgotten.
I acknowledge and honor your short, sweet life.
I have come to be with you. We are finally and forever connected.
You are remembered and a part of me.
Your big sister,
Roberta.

Knowing that he was now part of the island itself was enough for Omin. It didn't bother her that she couldn't visit a physical grave. She took some pinecones home with her and placed them on top of a dresser in her bedroom with the Kaddish.

On the day I visited, the wind was biting and a flock of Canadian geese flew overhead. The ferry couldn't depart until the "morgue truck" arrived, which transports pine coffins from medical examiner offices all over the city to Hart Island every day. One of the ferry operators was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt with an orange slogan declaring: "Hart Island—when no one wants you, we'll take you." Captain Marctold me that he and the other ferry operators had them made a couple of years ago. "Some people don't like them, but we don't mean any offense," he said. "When you're out here all day you have to laugh a little bit."

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union sued to have Hart Island brought under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, opening it up to more visitors. A bill to that effect has been sponsored by Queens councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and was discussed during a Bronx community board meeting last month. But for now, with the exception of its digital footprint, the place remains largely inaccessible.

As I rode the ferry away from Hart Island, the gazebo looked comically small, like a piece of dollhouse furniture dropped onto the grass by accident. The rest of the 131 acres hovered in the distance, like a mirage.

*Update: A DOC spokesperson emailed VICE the following statement after publication: "The Department of Correction has administered the city cemetery for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility. In recent years, we have conducted regular monthly visits to allow family members and others to pay their respects by visiting a specially designated space within the cemetery. While the cemetery on Hart Island lacks the infrastructure to safely accommodate large numbers of visitors or to allow them to wander about the grounds, we continue to explore ways to meet requests of relatives seeking greater access to honor those buried on the island."

Tess Owen is a freelance reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.