Why NYC Wouldn't Let This Woman Visit Her Daughter's Grave

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

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.



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Comments [16]

donna from NY

I was touched by one story I read but, is there a way if someone was to pay for it to have a person moved from there to a regular cemetary and what would the cost be? Also, are all the people there people that are total unknown who they are and who they belong to? I am new to the site and my mission is to help find missing persons.

Aug. 20 2014 11:52 PM
mike lozito

this continues to outrage me and many others who have ties to hart island and lovedones burried there. it is not on issue that the public or many politicians supportbecause of the social and economic status of many there. we need some prominant and medai savy people to get behind this . please.

Jul. 22 2014 09:08 AM

The Hart Island Project will be having an annual meeting at the City Island Public Library on Saturday, June 21 at 2 PM. The address is: 320 City Island Avenue, Bronx NY 10464. There will be a performance following the meeting by songwriter Dave Doobinin at the City Island Dock, gateway to Hart Island. Everyone is welcome.

Jun. 16 2014 11:32 AM
Angelo L. Aquino from Bergenfield, NJ

My little brother Died in 1967 when he was 12. He had Down Syndrome and lived most of his life at Willowbrook Hospital in Staten Island. My parents were poor and unable to provide the monetary funds for his medical necessities. So the state took care of Hector all those years. We would go every Saturday to visit my brother at Willowbrook. My parents knowing little English and not understanding the laws in NY, were forced to sign documents granting the state permission to take full care of my brother. What they fail to tell us was that once he passes, We would not be able to claim the body. They gave us a 3 hour visit when he died and we never saw my brother again. The pain my parents and the rest of our family went through, will live with us forever. Now! Some 50 years later my sister has been trying to get information regarding my brother's remain. To date, it has fallen on death ears. If we are all Americans, and we all pay taxes for this Island. Why on earth are we denied the rights to visit a deceased family member? Something is not right. This is not only about dignity and respect for the dead; It's about closier...

Jun. 14 2014 08:12 PM
Grace La Mothe-Lippman from Monroe, NY

My mother didn't know she was carrying twins when she was pregnant, and something didn't feel quite right. Her doctor promised an x-ray the next visit, but instead, we arrived early in June of 1949, instead of August. My brother was born one hour after me, because of complications. He was transferred to Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, which was better equipped to handle his special needs. I remained behind with Mom at Adelphi Hospital. The last thing she remembers is seeing him transported in an incubator to Brooklyn Jewish. Richard Jon died several days later. The nurses told Mom she was lucky - she was at least taking one baby home. I don't remember hearing about being a twin until much later on. There was no mention of a grave, or place to visit Richard. As I got older, and more interested in our family tree, I wanted to visit him, but where was he? Any conversation about the circumstances would bring anger and tears from Mom. She is now 97, and still cries about him. Through Melinda, I was able to keep the search going. Her truth and passion to help us is amazing. Through her guidance and encouragement, I found that he is also on Hart Island. The family had two burial plots; Dad was a veteran, and he could have been with Mom and Dad, waiting for them. I want to visit him, see where he has been resting all these years. Some day I hope I will be able to touch the ground where he is. Melinda reminded me that there is nothing left of him now. I now think that he is with very special people, who have a right to be visited, and mourned properly. He is in a sacred place now, a true memorial site. Please let us honor them all as they should be, but also allow us to visit our loved and lost ones. Thank you for your efforts to do so.

Jun. 14 2014 10:26 AM
Tess from Long Island NY

My uncle, Alberto Mejias, disappeared and after many years of searching I found out through the NYC Medical Examiners Office that he was buried on Hart Island. The ME provided the police report and autopsy info. I don't know why his family was never notified of his was only through The Hart Island project and Melinda that I was able to find him, buried in Potter's Field and no way to visit. This sacred ground should not be managed by Corrections.

Jun. 12 2014 08:54 AM
Roberta Rachel Omin from Westchester, New York

How synchronistic that I listened to WNYC at the moment that I did today to hear about the babies buried on Hart Island. On March 28, 1952, when I was 6 1/2years old, my brother, David Joseph, died at the Women's Infirmary in NYC. My parents didn't talk about him at the time, his birth and death were shrouded in secrecy, but pieces came out bit by bit. t later learned he was buried in a Potters grave. Around 1992 I read a New York Times Magazine article about those buried in Potter's graves. That is when I began my search to locate my brother. I was told that prisoners did the burials, and therefore I would not be allowed access to the Island to his gravesite which was covered by weeds. I pushed and tried to get permission to come to Hart Island, if only to put a marker on his grave, that he had lived for 3 days. It was declined. This has always been a piece of unfinished business for me. Both of my sons are named after my brother - the brother I never met. I want and need to find a way to honor him and undo the dismissal of his short life.

Jun. 11 2014 09:43 PM
Megan from Manhattan

Shame on that heartless s of a b who doesn't think that people should be able to visit the graves of their loved ones because he's worried about traffic on City Island.

Jun. 11 2014 06:39 PM
Eileen Gallagher from Boston

My brother, William Rice, is buried on Hart Island. He went "missing" for nearly ten years. I called multiple New York agencies, including the coroner's office, in 2001 when he first "disappeared," but it was all for nothing. I was unable to file a missing person's report, because he was homeless. No police ever helped me. IMO they may have obstructed me from finding him. I spent hours upon hours looking through pictures of unidentified bodies, hoping to find him. Finally, I learned that my brother was struck and killed instantly by a speeding car as he staggered in the street. My brother was swept up, sent to the coroner's office, where he was identified by his correct name and then sent to Hart Island and buried under his correct name and birthdate. He was never missing, he was simply thrown away. I can only assume that my brother's homelessness made him undeserving of anything better.

Thank God for Melinda Hunt, because of her database I was able to find exactly where my brother was laid to rest. I hope some day Hart Island will become a park, with a memorial facility. My brother was not just a homeless alcoholic, he was an engineer, a physicist, an artist and a hero.

Jun. 11 2014 05:41 PM


If you have a death certificate for you father and you have called the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to confirm his burial on Hart Island, all you need to do is hire a funeral director who will file the paperwork to have your father exhumed. You must pay the funeral director to collect his remains. New York City will disinter him for free.

I don't know why your father was buried there. But I do know it is reversible if his burial was during the past decade.

Jun. 11 2014 01:41 PM
L from NY

This woman is to be commended for bringing attention to something that is not addressed by law. There are so many "bureaucratic technicalities " that are ridiculous.
By the way, the fact that Hart Island is a hidden world which is overseen by the Department of Corrections and in which prisoners are put to dig graves, most likely means that there must be corruption that the average person has no opportunity for it to occur to them. There have been books written about the unethical practices of the funeral and mortuary industries with body parts being sold without permission from the deceased's next-of-kin. With criminals being put to exhume bodies and the persons who run the corrections department it could mean that bodies which are supposed to be buried at Hart Island are not actually there.

It is important that responsible persons in political office look into the matter and enact policies that will protect human rights.

The new legislation to transfer Hart Island to the Parks Department rather than the Department of Corrections seems to be a step in the right direction.

Jun. 11 2014 01:34 PM
Susan Piperato from kingston ny

My grandmother and her infant daughter were both buried on Hart Island in 1937 and because of that, my father, who was only 6 at the time, could never visit their graves, which is something that upset him his entire life. I would like to be able t make the trip there in his memory.

I believe that Hart Island should be managed by the Parks Dept. and that at least the families of the dead should be given access, which would afford them not only closure but dignity.

Jun. 11 2014 11:50 AM
Charlane Leavy Stephenson from Hart Island

Melinda Hunt Can you find out why my father was buried there He has a grave plot at St Charles in Long Island where my Mother is and my sister is buried.

Jun. 11 2014 11:44 AM

Eileen, email Melinda Hunt can help you find out if he's buried there.

Jun. 11 2014 11:08 AM
Eileen Bettenhauser from NY

Would like to find out if my brother is on Hart Island. He was born/died on August 28, 1953 at Kew Gardens Hospital in Queens, NY.

Jun. 11 2014 10:22 AM
Laurie Grant MD, MPH from Westchester, NY

I was the second person to attempt access to Hart Island after Elaine, and was left at the fenced dock with media representatives and my sister, unable to get access. My baby died over 20 years ago and I could not find out any information about where she was buried, although I was told at the time of her death I would be able to visit the grave. Through The Hart Island database I found that she was buried on Hart Island, but the burial was logged in with the wrong date of death and the wrong year.
This is a human dignity and rights issue, and the impression that only destitute New York City people are buried there is false. Burial rituals are part of all cultures and necessary for grief and moving on with life. The way Hart Island has been managed has denied families of basic burial rites and participation in the grief process. What cemetery is not available to a family for visitation in this country? The inhabitants of NYC are paying taxes for this cemetery, but know nothing about it and are unable to go there. Women who have no resources or do not speak the language are not made aware that the city has other resources for burial in certain designated cemeteries. Instead, they are left with grief post-partum changes, no baby to bring home, and unaware that the baby is buried in a potters field.

Jun. 11 2014 09:27 AM

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