A City Council oversight committee held a hearing Friday to review the operations of the oft-forgotten cemetery at Hart Island, New York City's potter's field, where some 850,000 people are buried, most of whom are either unclaimed, unidentified or whose families couldn't afford a funeral.
The Council was receptive to the pleas of advocacy groups to improve public access to the island, purportedly the world's largest tax-funded cemetery, particularly for those whose loved ones are buried there and for better record-keeping.
The island, located off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound, is currently run by the Department of Corrections, who ferries prisoners from Rikers Island four days a week to bury the city's indigent and stillborn babies in mass graves.
In 2010, 1,146 bodies, 670 adults and 476 infants, were laid to rest on Hart Island in pine-box coffins, which are stacked three deep in trenches 36 inches below the surface. Each grave can contain between 150 to 162 adults or 1,000 infants, according to a city council hearing brief. Every year, 60 to 80 bodies are exhumed when family or friends are able to claim the individuals.
Presently the DOC forbids journalists and the general public from accessing Hart Island. Trespassing is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Family members of those buried in the cemetery are allowed a supervised visit to a small gazebo near the dock on Hart Island where a memorial service is then held. Family members are not, however, allowed to visit the actual gravesite of their loved ones.
Melinda Hunt, who works with the non-profit group The Hart Island Project, testified Friday that families of the deceased also have to undergo an arduous process, navigating miles of red tape, in order to arrange a visit.
"New York City is the only municipality to require people to acquire a death certificate prior to visiting their public cemetery," she said at the hearing, adding that there is no law in New York State that requires proof of a legal relationship in order to visit a potter's field.
Hunt was joined by Mae Jean Adams, a chef and former New York City resident, who gave birth to a stillborn child in 1995. Due to a clerical error, it took Adams 14 years to confirm her son was buried on Hart Island. Hunt told The Huffington Post that Adams will not visit until she is allowed to see the actual spot on Hart Island where her son is buried.
"The fact is that we are denying very basic rights of citizens to perform a universal ritual of visiting a person's grave," Hunt said.
DOC officials testified that they hope to digitize all the burial records from the island by the end of 2011 and are working on providing more physical access to the island. A concern for the DOC is that there are currently no public restrooms or water fountains on Hart Island.
Owen Rogers, who works with the group Picture The Homeless, one of two civilian groups allowed to visit the island on a monthly basis, said the DOC once threatened to revoke the group's visiting rights if they didn't change some wording regarding Hart Island on their website from "mass graves" to "communal burial plots."
Rogers said Hart Island in its current form is a "prison for the dead" and that "it should not be run like a prison."
City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley told The Huffington Post she was "open to the possibility" of letting the Parks Department take over the operations at Hart Island and would like to make it accessible to the public. She is planning a fact-finding tour of the island with other city council members.
Crowley also said she wanted to see many of the structures on the island preserved. Michael Miscione, official historian of the borough of Manhattan, testified that there are abandoned Cold War-era missile silos on the island, as well as a peace monument erected by inmates after World War II and the former site of a Civil War-era POW camp.
WATCH An ABC Report About Hart Island From 1978:
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