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Hart Island: Once a psychiatric institution and now the resting place for Covid patients in New York

Hart Island has housed people at different points in time. Some were kept as prisoners or patients and others in their coffins.

When the Wuhan Coronavirus reached its peak in the United States in April last year, several unclaimed Coronavirus patients found their resting place in Hart Island. It is the largest potter’s field in New York City as well as the United States.

A data analysis conducted by the news website The City and Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism found that about 2,334 people were buried on the island in 2020. For the sake of comparison, the burials on the potter’s field were around 846 in 2019. The large disparity in the number of burials between 2019 and 2020 has been attributed to the Coronavirus outbreak and deaths caused due to unaddressed medical issues during the pandemic.

Interestingly, Hart Island had witnessed a spike in burials during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, although the scale was much lower than the one caused by the Wuhan Coronavirus. Assuming that all of those buried in 2020 were Coronavirus infected patients, coupled with over 700 refrigerated bodies, the number of burials on Hart Island will cross the 3000 mark. It will imply that the potter’s field accounts for about 5.5% of the total burial of Coronavirus patients in New York (the city has recorded deaths as of May 31, 2021).

Aerial view of Hart Island (Photo Credits: New York Daily News/Getty)

Earlier, the New York City officials had mulled over ending burials on Hart Island and moving the bodies out of the city. However, all such plans came to a standstill during the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic last year. With traditional cemeteries being overwhelmed with dead bodies, the potter’s field came to the rescue of unclaimed dead bodies. Hart Island Project is a non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing awareness about the island and fighting for better accessibility. Founder Melinda Hunt remarked, “It’s not some Dickensian thing. It’s an orderly and secure system of burials that works, especially when you have deaths on the scale of an epidemic.”

Avery Cohen, the spokesperson for the New York City Mayor, clarified that the bodies of those Coronavirus patients, which were not claimed by anyone, were buried in unmarked graves in Hart Island. He added, “For decades, Hart Island has been used to lay to rest decedents who have not been claimed by family members. We will continue using the Island in that fashion during this crisis and it is likely that people who have passed away from COVID who fit this description will be buried on the Island over the course of this epidemic.”

Burial od Covid-19 patients at Hart Island in April 2020 (Photo Credits: John Minchillo, Associated Press)

Family members of deceased Covid patients ask NYC to bury them in Hart Island

On May 7, the New York Post (NYP) reported that the dead bodies of 750 Coronavirus patients are lying in a refrigerated morgue on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York for more than a year. The bodies were kept in the long-term storage facility that was built in April 2020, when the country was overwhelmed by the early outbreak of the pandemic.

Reportedly, refrigerated vehicles were used when hospitals, morgues and funeral homes in New York were overburdened by the high number of Covid-19 related fatalities. Dina Maniotis, the executive Deputy Commissioner to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, conceded that the storage facilities were meant to be temporary. She told the City Council’s Committee on Health that the family members of the deceased individuals would be notified and briefed about the next plan of action.

Maniotis informed that many of them have asked the City Council to bury the deceased on Hard Island, which is New York’s potter’s field (place to bury the unknown). Some family members of the deceased are not in touch with the city council anymore. After learning about the state of mismanagement, Councilman Mark Gjonaj inquired as to why the bodies had not been buried yet. “Why are we delaying that any longer than we have to?” he asked.

The girm history of Hart Island

It must be mentioned that Hart Island was not always a burial ground. In the year 1654, a physician by the name of Thomas Pell bought the land via a treaty with the Suwank indigenous tribe. He expanded the estate through Bronx, Pelham, and New Rochelle. The property passed several hands of private lenders and landowners between the 18th and 19th centuries. Among them, the most notable ones are politicians and merchants Oliver Delancey and John Hunter.

Burial at Hart Island in 1936 (Photo Credits: Arthur Schatz, The life images collection/Getty)

Hart Island was earlier known by the name of ‘Spectacle Island,’ owing to its eyeglasses-like shape. After several name changes, ‘Hart’ was finally chosen as the name for the island. It derived its name from the large presence of deer (also called hart) that are found to date on the island. The New York City (NYC) bought Hart Island from private owners in 1868. About 45 acres of Hart Island was allocated for the city cemetery. It was meant to serve as a potter’s field for those families who were unable to afford funerals. Prior to that, Hart Island served various purposes.

During the American Civil War, the US government had leased the land to imprison Confederate soldiers and train the US Coloured Troops. For instance, a hospital was opened on the island during the tuberculosis epidemic (also called the white plague). The place served as a facility for quarantined patients. In the 19th Century, a women’s branch of Lunatic Asylum in New York City was opened on the island. A report from 1880 of that era noted, “no cures are reported, all the cases being chronic.”In the year 1905, a reformatory centre was set up in the hopes of taming the ‘vicious boys.’

Vicious boys doing manual work in 1913 (Photo Credits: New York Historical Society)

During the 2nd world war, Hart Island was used as a disciplinary camp. Later, it was employed as a missile launch facility during the US-Soviet Cold War. The site was also used as a rehabilitation centre for drug abusers in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, the burial records kept on the Island were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s and several graves were reused after bodies had decomposed. As such, the exact number of burial records is unavailable.

Hart Island embodies the idea of ‘uncertainty’ of human life

Ever since the cemetery came under the control of the Department of Correction, family members of those buried on the Island have not been granted access for visitors. Owing to the efforts of the Hart Island Project, family members of the deceased can visit the graves of their loved ones twice a month. However, they need to apply for advanced registration. During their visit, they cannot carry cameras or mobile phones. Owing to the pandemic, even the bi-monthly visits have come to a standstill.

An 1890 picture of a grave pit at Hart Island (Photo Credits: Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York)

Hart Island has housed people at different points in time. Some were kept as prisoners or patients and others in their coffins. The cemetery’s 45-year-old chaplain, Justin von Bujdoss, remarked, “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.”


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OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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