Hart Island is New York’s secret graveyard

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Hart Island is New York’s secret graveyard

By Mischa Wilmers


Elaine Joseph at the grave of her daughter. © The Hart Island Project/Melinda Hunt

Not many visitors to New York know that an island near the coast of the Bronx has one of the world’s largest graveyards. Since 1869 over 850,000 bodies have been buried on Hart Island. But the graveyard is a big secret. Even relatives of the dead cannot visit the graves. It is run by the Department of Correction and the graves are dug by prisoners. Many of the dead buried on the island were homeless, very poor, or had no friends or relatives. But a number of bodies, including many babies, are buried there against the wishes of family members. These family members are only allowed to visit a memorial near the graves.

Melinda Hunt is the founder of the Hart Island Project. The organization tries to help relatives who want to visit the graves. Melinda Hunt says that it is a good idea if New York City Council takes the control of the Island from the Department of Correction and gives control to the Department of Parks.

She says that the Department of Correction is the wrong city organisation to manage visits to the graveyard. She says the Department thinks it will lose their control over the prison system.

Elaine Joseph is a retired nurse and was a lieutenant commander in the Navy. In March she was allowed to visit the graveyard after she formally asked the Department of Correction. She was one of the first relatives to visit the graveyard.

Joseph’s baby, Tomika, died soon after she was born in 1978. Tomika was taken to another hospital for heart surgery. When her mother phoned some days later, doctors told her the baby had already been sent away for a public burial. Over 30 years later in 2009 she found that her daughter was buried on Hart Island.

She says her daughter was not poor, she was not unwanted, she was not a criminal. She says it was a terrible and unjust thing for this to happen to her and many, many other people.

Joseph was finally allowed to visit the graveyard but others have not been allowed.

Belinda Brecska’s father grew up in the Bronx. She did not see him very much when she was a child. He left home when she was four years old and he was often in trouble with the police. When she was 16, his parole officer contacted her to arrange a meeting and in 1992 they were back together again.

When Belinda Brecska found she was pregnant a year later, she phoned her father’s parole officer. But there was terrible news. The parole officer told her that her father had died and that he was buried on Hart Island. Belinda was the only person who could identify him and the parole officer said they couldn’t contact her. Belinda says that they make her feel she is lost, she will never be allowed to visit his grave because now he belongs to the state.

Last month Brecska found out about the Hart Island project. With the website she found information about where her father was buried. But she cannot visit the island herself. Brecska has applied for her father’s death certificate. When she has the certificate, she hopes to make an appointment with the Department of Correction to arrange a visit. But she knows that many, many people 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 right to freely visit the graveyard,’ she asks.



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