New York City’s Public Cemetery: An Inclusive Space for AllNovember 26, 2023
The first public tour of Hart Island, New York City’s public burial ground, was conducted by urban park rangers last Tuesday. However, the tours, which take place twice a month and are free, only provide access to the north part of the island where adult burials ended in 1989. Burials for the last 34 years, including anonymous AIDS graves, are not included in the public tours. Notably, many people became aware of mass burials on Hart Island through televised drone videos that were shown during the pandemic, revealing long trenches with pine boxes stacked on top of one another in rows. The videos uncovered a burial practice that had been ongoing since 1872, which only a few people, such as inmates and correction officers, had witnessed.
Furthermore, the shift in jurisdiction of Hart Island from the New York penal system to NYC Parks in October 2021 seemed to signal a new chapter for the island. However, a recently completed burial capacity study by the city Human Resources Administration (HRA) raises concerns about the island’s future. The study recommends continuing the current trench method of mass burial, with only slight modifications, until the city runs out of burial space. While cremation is briefly considered in the report, it is dismissed due to various reasons, including the cost of running utilities to Hart Island, lack of adequate cremation facilities citywide, and environmental impacts.
Despite the inhumane scale of the burials, Hart Island is considered a beautiful location and the largest natural burial ground in the United States. Visitors often comment on the majestic feel of Long Island Sound when they visit. The island provides natural burials free of cost, in contrast to the expensive burial practices carried out by funeral homes and private cemeteries, such as embalming, the use of hardwood boxes or concrete vaults. The current method of burial, which includes large, deep trenches, poses conservation challenges and does not fulfill the wishes of families who want to know where their loved ones are buried and be able to visit the grave. Moreover, it results in a largely denuded landscape with poor habitat value and erosion susceptibility.
The burial capacity study fails to consider broader scenarios for burial, such as the practice of grave reuse, as it assumes that state nonprofit corporation laws that prohibit grave recycling in private cemeteries also apply to burials on public land. However, the state has no jurisdiction on Hart Island and burial plots can be reused once bodies decompose to skeletal remains. Despite initial revulsion, grave reuse on Hart Island could provide individual burials with lesser ecological disruption and better landscape restoration. Another issue is the lack of proper documentation as the location of bodies is no longer recorded with GPS coordinates, leading to confusion and discomfort for families.
In conclusion, the future of Hart Island as a cemetery for future generations should be based on a sustainable master plan. This plan should highlight the island’s beauty and its natural burials while also educating the public about burial practices and options available for those who choose city burials. The implementation of individual burials with grave reuse could be an environmentally sustainable solution while fulfilling the wishes of families. NYC Parks is set to begin planning for the future of Hart Island and has hired a contractor to begin a master plan that will include public comments, giving hope for a more sustainable and compassionate future for the island.