Few visitors to New York are aware that a wooded island off the coast of the Bronx is home to one of the world’s largest burial grounds. Since 1869 over 850,000 corpses have been buried on Hart Island, yet the site – which is run by the Department of Correction and dug by prison inmates – is shrouded in so much secrecy that even relatives of the dead are denied the right to visit the graves.
Many of the dead buried on the island were homeless, destitute or never claimed by friends or relatives. However, an unknown number of corpses – including many stillborn babies – are interred there against the wishes of family members who are only allowed access to a memorial Gazebo erected nearby the graves.
Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, an organization which advocates for relatives seeking access to the graves argues that New York City Council should transfer control of the Island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks.
‘They’re really the wrong city agency to be managing visitation. They view it as a threat to the sense of total control that they feel they need over the prison system,’ she says.
In March, after successfully petitioning the Department of Correction for proper access to the site, Elaine Joseph, a retired nurse and former lieutenant commander in the Navy, became one of the first relatives to visit the site.
Joseph’s baby, Tomika, died shortly after she was born prematurely in 1978. Tomika had been transferred to another hospital to undergo heart surgery and when her mother phoned up days later doctors told her the baby had already been sent away for a public burial. It wasn’t until 2009 that she discovered her daughter was buried on Hart Island.
‘She was not poor, she was not unwanted, she was not a criminal to be in the criminal justice system. It was a real travesty of justice for this to happen to me and many, many other people,’ she protests.
While Joseph was eventually granted access, others have been less fortunate. Growing up in the Bronx, Belinda Brecska’s father was rarely around during her childhood. He left home when she was four years old and was frequently in trouble with the law. When she was 16 his parole officer got in touch with her to arrange a meeting and in 1992 they were reunited.
When Brecska discovered she was pregnant a year later, she phoned her father’s parole officer to get hold of him only to receive devastating news. ‘She said to me “your father passed away, he’s buried on Hart Island”. I was the only living being that could have identified him and she said they couldn’t contact me. They make you feel like you’re lost, you will never be able to visit any grave site because now he belongs to the state.’
Last month Brecska discovered the Hart Island project. Through the website she was able to acquire details of where her father was buried but remains unable to visit the island herself. Brecska has applied for her father’s death certificate after which she hopes to make an appointment with the Department of Correction to arrange a visit. She remains aware, however, of the large numbers of people who have been turned away in the past.
‘If they can open up their hearts and put themselves in the situation…and make it possible for us to visit regularly when we like. We don’t want any trouble, we just want to have the privilege to freely visit the gravesite,’ she pleads.