An island that is the final resting place for thousands of people who were unclaimed by anyone after their death is set to become a public park in New York City.
For more than 150 years, Hart Island has been the place where those without anyone to look for them after their death have been taken to be buried.
It’s the largest public cemetery in the whole USA, and loads of bodies have been buried in unmarked coffins and unmarked graves since it opened up in 1869.
The bodies arrive in their plain wooden caskets, and employees of the city stack them up in trenches three deep, marking each with a white wooden post that bears only a reference number.
Because of restrictions in place, the very few people visit the island.
The chaplain at the cemetery, Justin von Bujdoss, told Smithsonian Magazine: “Hart Island is like a shadow of New York City,
“It reflects the lives of people who live on the margins—the homeless, the sickly, the neglected, the forgotten and overworked.
“No one lives their lives believing it will end here.”
Now, part of the site – where there are over 1,000 burials each year – is to become a park, and officials hope that it might offer the public a glimpse into the true nature of the place, and teach them the history of this forgotten New York landmark.
Sue Donoghue, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, told the New York Times: “For decades, Hart Island has been misunderstood and stigmatized. But today is a new day.”
The non-profit Hart Island Project has been at the heart of efforts to open up the island to the public, which tells a tale of the socio-economic history of one of the world’s most important cities.
Over the years, there have been many reasons that people have ended up at Hart Island, from destitution to Covid-19, and the story is a fascinating – if a little macabre – one.
Melinda Hunt, founder of the project, said: “It has to do with reconnecting the island to people around the globe who have someone buried there and giving them a voice.”
So, after their efforts, the park is soon to open to the public, free to visit, with park rangers offering nature classes and guided tours as part of the ‘managed visitation’ program of opening the island up.
There are even plans to extend transport options to Hart Island, too.
However, the island will remain first and foremost a respectful place, and on burial days the access will be limited, as well as two days when graveside visits are permitted for families.
Mitchel Loring, a senior project planner with the Parks Department, said: “It will be passive, scenic open space, not a place where people disembark and go at it, just to have fun.”
Marjorie Velázquez, a New York City Council member, added: “[It needs to be] a place where we all can reflect on the value of life and our priorities and remember that none of us escapes death,
“We all end up together.”Featured Image Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images