The Grave History of Hart Island

The Grave History of Hart Island
Image of a digWhile the number of cases of Covid-19 rises steadily in the U.S., Americans are left with only one choice to combat it: staying at home. As of right now, there have been over 980,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States. New York has become the country’s epicenter of the virus, acquiring almost 294,000 of those cases. Despite the Stay-At-Home order, the virus still spreads among the close-living city dwellers of New York. Because of the surge of hospitalizations and unfortunate deaths, New York has once again had to make a dreary decision when it comes to where the bodies of unidentified coronavirus victims will be buried. There is no hesitation, today’s unknown will be buried with victims from past pandemics and crises, dating back a century in mass graves on Hart Island.

Hart Island is considered to be New York City’s public cemetery and has been run and owned by the New York City Department of Correction since 1895. Originally, forty-five acres of land on the islet was purchased to accommodate burials of people whose family could not afford a funeral. The role of the island later expanded, becoming the resting place of New Yorkers with no known next of kin and unidentified corpses. Over a million people are believed to be buried on Hart Island, but the true number will never be known due to a time in the 1930s when gravesites were reused and a 1970s fire that destroyed records pertaining to the names and death dates of the deceased.

The first person to be buried on the island was Louisa Van Slyke after she had died of tuberculosis and no one claimed her body. She was the first of many tuberculosis patients to be buried on the island. However, the victims of the “white plague” would not be alone for long; the year after Slyke’s burial, people infected with yellow fever were quarantined and eventually buried there also.

Despite the island’s deeply rooted history, civilians paid less and less attention to the mass grave site during the twentieth century. This period of blissful ignorance came to an abrupt end during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The disease swept the nation and the anxiety that surrounded it kept those who fell to the virus barred from funeral homes. Until scientists could conclude who was at risk for AIDS and how to control it, people were terrified of the host and the disease itself. Even the dead could not escape the virus’s stigmas; the bodies of those who died from AIDS were buried on Hart Island, but separated from all other burial sites and placed in graves 14 feet into the ground.

While many factors of the Coronavirus are unprecedented, the procedures on Hart Island are not. The DOC will continue to carry out its operations pertaining to burials but will not allow people to visit or claim their loved ones until the pandemic slows down. Each coffin is marked with a number-code in hopes it will one day be claimed and moved to the site of the family’s choosing.

Written by: Addie Hedges