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Occupying 131 acres in Long Island Sound, off the Bronx shore, Hart Island is the largest public burial ground in the United States. It has been New York City’s public burial ground for more than 150 years, and it is the final resting place of more than 1 million individuals — mostly bodies that went unclaimed or those whose families were not able to afford a burial. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is being pressed into service as a temporary resting place for deceased New Yorkers whose internments have been postponed.

Coronavirus deaths in the city reached a total of more than 11,000 this week. This spike in mortality has overwhelmed city-run morgues, funeral homes, crematoriums and private cemeteries. The disease has disproportionately affected low-income and minority communities, leading to more burials on Hart island.

Not all of those buried at Hart Island during the pandemic are people who had no next of kin or could not afford a funeral. Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters last week that “temporary burials” may be necessary until the crisis passes. Families that have a loved one buried at Hart Island who were unable to retain a funeral home and choose a city burial will have the opportunity to disinter and relocate their relative’s remains.

According to the city’s Department of Correction, which has been running burial operations on the island since 1869, employing inmates at the nearby Rikers Island jail, burials on the island have increased to about 24 a day, up from three or four before the pandemic hit. 

For now, the use of inmates to dig graves has been discontinued.

The process used to bury the unclaimed on Hart Island is not new. It just has become more visible during this crisis, since the city has shortened the length of time it will hold unclaimed remains in morgues, from 30 days to 14. 

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 09: Burials take place on Hart Island on April 9, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York. Hart Island’s potter’s field has experienced an influx of burials during the Coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images)

There is no federal law regarding how to treat unclaimed bodies, and the procedures vary by state. In New York, these bodies cannot be cremated, based on the centuries-old common-law  principle of “right of sepulcher,” which gives the next of kin the right to choose and control the final disposition of the deceased. A violation of these rights could lead to a lawsuit. 

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This is not the first time that Hart Island has been used in this capacity. Since the mid-1800s, it has served as a burial ground for victims of epidemics, including the Spanish flu and AIDS.

De Blasio took to Twitter last week to respond to concerns over possible mass burials on the island due to the pandemic. 

“The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we’re seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately. Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide. … There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual, and every body will be treated with dignity.”

One of the reasons some people expressed concern about the way COVID-19 victims were being buried on Hart Island is because of drone footage that circulated recently. The images and videos show burial crews in freshly dug trenches, stacking bare wooden boxes on top of each other. For many, this method of burial, paired with the stigma associated with inmate labor, did not seem a dignified way to lay these victims to rest.

Melinda Hunt, founder and director of Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization that has supported families of the buried and advocated for public access to the site, told Yahoo News that people should not fear this process. 

“There’s no reason to look at this as a dark place. … After 150 years, it’s no longer inmates burying the dead on Hart Island.The Department of Correction has transferred jurisdiction to [the Parks and Recreation Department, which has] now hired contractors to bury all of the bodies due to COVID-19.”

Last winter, the New York City Council passed legislation to make Hart Island a public park, where citizens can freely visit graves. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department assumed jurisdiction shortly after and will be taking over the island’s management by July 1, 2021. 

“It’s really a wide open, natural landscape, full of deer and birds. It’s really a beautiful and peaceful location,” said Hunt.

She also says that the system used by the city to bury the dead may look shocking, but it is efficient and carried out respectfully. 

“The medical examiner handles all of the bodies that are sent to Hart Island. There’s a lot of paperwork. Those refrigerator trucks that you’re seeing at hospitals, those don’t go straight to Hart Island,” Hunt said. “Each box is an individual, the family is contacted. If a funeral director does not show up [at the morgue] within 14 days to receive the body, then this is the only thing that the city can do with the body.”

Hunt says Hart Island has always been misunderstood, but that New Yorkers should know it is an honorable place to be buried. 

“It is such a terrible time that people cannot be with their relatives at the end of life and say goodbye, and there’s so much tragedy, but this is one thing people should not fear what the city  is doing. This system of burials has been used … and it works quite well.” she said. 

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