Every month, the bodies of about 125 people are shipped from New York City's medical examiner’s office to Hart Island just off the Bronx. It’s the final resting place for nearly one million people. For over a century, it’s where the city has buried its unclaimed dead and in some cases, babies that have died at childbirth or soon after.
The island falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction, and almost every day, inmates from Rikers Island are ferried to Hart Island where they spend hours digging graves. One burial plot can hold 150 adult, pinewood coffins, stacked three deep. A separate trench of the same size holds 1,000 infants.
Elaine Joseph’s daughter, Tomika, was born prematurely in 1978 at a Manhattan hospital and died a few days later. After days of grieving, she was told her daughter’s body had been given to the city for burial, but no one knew where she was buried.
It wasn’t until over 30 years later that Elaine discovered that Tomika had been buried on Hart Island. She desperately wanted to visit her daughter’s gravesite, but there was one problem.
The Department of Correction treats Hart Island like it’s a jail, meaning visiting there can be extremely difficult. The department refers to the island as a “secure facility:” it considers the gravedigger inmates as a security threat. In addition, there is no infrastructure to accommodate visitors to the island.
The visits the department does allow are heavily supervised by guards, and visitors are only allowed to walk to a small gazebo just thirty or so yards from the dock. Almost no one is permitted to walk to the actual gravesites.
After working with the Hart Island Project, Elaine finally visited the site of her daughter’s grave in February of this year. She now hopes others like her can make the same trip and is supporting a bill in the City Council to transfer jurisdiction of the island to the Parks Department. Hart Island would then become a public park with improved access, especially for families with loved ones buried on the island.