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Effort Aims to Expand Access to Hart Island Gravesites

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A movement is now under way to help people searching for information regarding Hart Island, a city burial ground for those who have not been identified or whose funeral arrangements have not been made. NY1's Erin Clarke filed the following report.

At age 23, Elaine Joseph of Fresh Meadows lost her first child to a heart defect.

"At five days old, after suffering cardiac arrest before and after the surgery my daughter died," Joseph recalled.

Joseph wasn't there. A snowstorm in January of 1978 prevented her from getting to the hospital where the surgery was performed. It was days before she could get in contact with someone there, only to be told the bad news.

"'We buried the baby. You gave permission for the city to take care of it,'" said Joseph. "I was shocked because I couldn't have signed anything. I had never been there."

Joseph had no idea where her baby was buried. She only remembered vague references to a potter's field. It wouldn't be until 2009 that she learned of the Hart Island Project, an effort to provide public access to the city's cemetery on Hart Island in Long Island Sound and to a database of burial records.

"I've worked with over 500 families actually locating people, helping them to arrange for disinternments," said Hart Island Project Executive Director Melinda Hunt.

For years, Hunt has personally escorted people to the island of mass graves dug by inmates from Riker's Island.

To get to those graves you take a ferry operated by the Department of Correction from a dock on City Island, but once you get there, there are strict limitations on what you can do.

"They look at your ID, they take all of your personal cell phones, recording devices, cameras, anything electronic you must leave with them," Joseph said.

Advocates say this makes visitors feeling like criminals. There's a bill being reintroduced to the City Council in March that would transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island to the Parks Department.

Parks has previously refused jurisdiction because burials still take place there, but advocates believe a compromise can be made.

"I do understand there's still active burial sites. Those could be sectioned off, but hopefully and still have the opportunity for people to visit," said City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

For help finding a loved one believed to be buried on Hart Island, visit hartisland.net or nyc.gov/html/doc.

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