Of all the areas in New York City with sordid histories, Hart Island may just boast the saddest of them all. Much like the infamously haunted Roosevelt Island, Hart Island, located near the Bronx borough of New York City, served as a location for more than a few morbid enterprises: an insane asylum, hospitals for deadly diseases, and prisoner-of-war camps. The Hart Island history doesn't stop there: New York City purchased the land from the Hunter family for $75,000 in 1868. The 10th potter's field in the city, Hart Island served as a final resting place for unclaimed bodies and those unable to afford a proper burial. It remains in use as of 2018. But with over 1 million bodies buried on the 101-acre plot, including men, women, and children, Hart Island is starting to get a little crowded, to the point that the dead are "rising up."
Soil erosion began unearthing the mass graves of the unfortunate and forgotten, a story that gained exposure more so in 2018 than in years prior. As of April 2018, 174 bones have been recovered from the millions housed on Hart Island. According to a Columbia University professor, the state of the island mirrors the lives of those buried there: "The sad thing is that [their burials reflect] very much the same way they lived."
Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, took a boat to Hart Island in April 2018 and photographed human remains jutting from the soil. Hunt told reporters she's observed the erosion of the island's shoreline since the '90s, but no one really listened until her latest batch of photographs began circulating online.
"There have been skeletal remains falling onto the beach for 33 years," said Hunt. "I have a sanitation report from 1985 saying it was a common occurrence."
Storms, tides, and flooding eroded the island's soil, prompting the remains buried in mass graves to reveal themselves and wash away with the tides. To preserve those buried there, anthropologists moved in to collect the bones and hold onto them until improvements could be made in 2019, a move that will cost about $13 million.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) promised $13 million to the city of New York to undo the damage from storms like 2012's Hurricane Sandy. The repairs to Hart Island's eroded shoreline are expected to begin in 2019, a year after human remains appeared poking out of the soil.
They announced the grant in 2015, which includes the following fixes: "Repair/restoration and hazard mitigation work to Hart Island's seawalls and shoreline, including slope hardening and additional rip-rap."
Original plans proposed a 2020 start date, though officials decided to commence earlier in 2019.
New York City Department of Corrections maintains the potter's field, doing so since its purchase in 1868 with the exception of a few years. Officials bus and ferry inmates from Rikers onto the island where they serve as cheap labor, making only 50 cents an hour in 2013. The inmates dig trenches, bury the dead, handle disinterment of claimed bodies, and other required maintenance.
The prisoner presence complicates the process for people wanting to visit their loved ones, resulting in monthly visits, paperwork, and armed guards on the island. Even more upsetting, Rikers now forces the forgotten living to bury the forgotten dead for a grand possible total of $12 a day.
When someone dies in New York City, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner takes custody of the body until it becomes identified and the relatives claim it. If the body remains unclaimed, the examiner hands it over to the Department of Corrections for burial on Hart Island.
No official gravestones or markers exist for the up to 1,000 bodies buried in mass graves in the potter's field every year; instead they are marked with granite stumps. Each long trench dug by the inmates can hold up to 150 adult bodies or nearly 1,000 children and babies housed in pine boxes.