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Council Looking Into City Cemetery

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hart Island listings of burials on three different days from three different boroughs. Hart Island listings of burials on three different days from three different boroughs. (Courtesy Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project)

A City Council oversight committee is looking into the status of the Potter's Field cemetery at Hart Island where 850,000 people are buried. The cemetery is run by the City's Department of Corrections with inmate labor. The Council is pushing for both better record keeping and greater access for the public looking for the bodies of deceased loved ones.

In 2010, inmates directed by City's Department of Corrections buried eleven hundred bodies on Hart Island that were unclaimed, unidentified, or whose families could not afford to bury them, including 670 adults and 476 infants. Melinda Hunt, with the non-profit Hart Island Project said people trying to find relatives have to deal with a legacy of bad record keeping and very limited access.
 
"In the twenty years that I have been working on the Hart Island Project, this is the first time that there has been a hearing with City Council members who are concerned about what's happening on Hart Island and I am very glad to see that happen," Hunt said in an interview before she testifed at the hearing.
 
Department of Corrections officials told the Council Committee they are in the early stages of computerizing the records and are making an effort to provide access to the island. There are no public restrooms or water fountains on the island and the dock used for the ferry that provides sole access to the island is in need of repair.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley said that in addition to more public access, she wanted to see the preservation of the structures on the Island. Some date as far back as the Civil War, when the island hosted a jail for Confederate POWs.

"If we were to look at the cemetery and the island as a multi-use entity, that more people will go there and it will be better taken care of and become much more of an asset to the people of New York," Crowley said in an interview after the hearing.

Staten Island Councilman James Oddo said it has been years since the Council reviewed operations at the site. He said he has heard complaints about lapses in record keeping.

"And I think it is long overdue and I have had two instances in the last two years, one positive, one really disheartening in trying to get the remains of a loved one and that's how I have come to this."

In one instance, Oddo was able to help a constituent locate the remains of her mother who had died and been buried in Hart Island in the late 1980s. The Staten Island Councilman said a press account of that success prompted someone in California to reach out for his help locating the body of a family member who was veteran of the Vietnam War and was buried on the island in the 1970s.

Oddo said that due to a fire, internment records for that period have been lost.

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Comments [9]

Julie S. Turner from Canoga Park, Ca.

I will never minimize what Ms. Hunt has done, and continues to do, on behalf of Hart Island but the fact that City Council conducted the first Oversight Hearing in 20 years, which Ms. Hunt herself stated, did not occur as a result of anything she did in this immediate instance. And it is an "insult" to me and my hard, behind-the-scenes, efforts, as well as an insult to my brother, on whose behalf I began my journey. The bottom-line is there are others who can, have and will continue to, speak on behalf of the Island, its residents, and their relatives and friends. Others can make a difference - I've merely been silent...up til now. And... I've only just begun.

Nov. 03 2011 12:27 AM
Elvia from New Jersey

With Melinda Hunt's determination to give people the ability to find their loved ones I was able to find my father on her website. She was able to give me some sort of closure, Now if only they would allow me to go to the island and pay my respects!!!

Nov. 01 2011 01:42 PM
Lisa Russo from New Jersey

I have visited the island. My twin brother is buried there. Melinda Hunt made that happen and for that I will be eternally grateful. She is an amazing woman who has fought for all of us for years for no gain to herself. I had no trouble visiting the island once I supplied my brother's death certificate. The DOC was very pleasant and kind to me. I was given a tour of the island, supervised of course. The exact location of where my brother was buried was lost in the fire but I was brought to the general section. It was an amazing experience but I need the island to be open to the public so I can go back again. I can tell you that there is certainly an energy on the island and those buried there deserve to have their loved ones pay their respects.

Nov. 01 2011 08:17 AM
Ray Lembo from Long Island

Melinda Hunt has taken on the Herculean task of trying to make searchable sense out of decades of scribbled data. There are chunks of that data missing due to damaged or destroyed records. To say you have accomplished more in one year than she has in 20 is a gross misrepresentation of the facts, and is an unfair slam to her dedication.

Nov. 01 2011 06:42 AM
joe harris

I was glad to find out that my grand father is buried on hart island.He was buried in 1925 the year that I was born.I never able to know him.I hope that I will be to see his grave before I die.

Oct. 31 2011 04:14 PM
Jordan Stone from near St. Louis, Missouri

I am a former NYC resident who has spent a lot of time in the ten years since I moved away from the city reading and learning about the history of the island. It's a place many would like to visit, not only to pay respect those who are buried there, but also to take in the immense history of the place. As the councilwoman said, it has far too much to offer the residents and visitors of the city to be relegated to decaying docks, poor record keeping, and eroding historical landmarks. Cheers to this being brought up and put back in the news!

Oct. 31 2011 02:28 PM
Bob Hennelly

Thanks for writing. I am very much interested in your first hand experiences in trying to get information about loved ones buried at Hart Island. A follow-up was already in the works.
Bob Hennelly
Senior Reporter
646-829-4378

Oct. 31 2011 01:18 PM
Walter Albasi from Rapid City, SD

I heartily agree there is way, way more to this story. The recent scandals at Ryker's and the CRIMINAL complaint that Ms Hunt filed against the Department of corrections may have played a big part as well. It took me seven years to find the documentation on where my wife's baby is buried and that was only after a hundred dead end searches Melinda went through the records manually and finally found him because of a typo in the sloppy record keeping. My wife M.J. Adams traveled at substantial expense from South Dakota to appear with MS Hunt and the other board members at the hearing. There is way way more to this story. The DOC is downright hostile to anyone even attempting access the island and even then you are completely restricted and can't go anywhere near the grave sites. Their testimony was disingenuous at best in my view although I have not seen the transcripts and I was not there. There are thousands of veterans out there and who knows who else. I'm glad you covered it Mr. Hennelly but dig deeper. Way deeper. There is more here. A lot more.

Oct. 30 2011 08:42 PM
Julie Turner from canoga park, CA

Interesting article, Mr.Hennelly. I am the woman in Southern California whose story Councilman Oddo refers to and it is because of my persistence and dogged determination that the Oversight Hearing was scheduled. While I will not diminish what Ms. Hunt has done over the years, it is I who has accomplished in one year that she could not in 20. There's more to this monumental news and how it all came about. There is more story for you to write, if you are interested.

Thank you.

Julie S. Turner

Oct. 30 2011 07:17 PM

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