For decades, the barriers that have separated the people of New York and Hart Island have been nearly as insuperable as the boundaries between the living and the dead.
Visiting the city’s potter’s field—one of the few in the country that is still in active use—has been almost entirely forbidden, with family members of the approximately 850,000 people buried there granted highly-restricted, and some say grudging access, to a small, fenced-off area by the island’s ferry dock. The city purchased the 101-acre island off the coast of City Island in the Bronx in 1868 and designated it “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Although the island once housed a reformatory, a workhouse, a convalescent hospital and a prisoner of war camp, the Department of Corrections, the island’s caretaker, has always cited security concerns in defense of its strict closed-off policies. Prisoners from Rikers perform the burials.
Now the City Council is considering two likely-to-pass bills (introduced by council member Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the Committee on Fire & Criminal Justice Services) that would make Hart Island a more open and accessible place.