BRONX, N.Y. - More than one million New Yorkers - most of their names unknown - are buried in mass, unmarked graves on Hart Island, a huge public cemetery a short distance from City Island in the Bronx.
Elsie Soto's father was laid to rest there after dying of AIDS-related complications.
"It just doesn't feel like you're going to visit a family member who is buried. You don't feel a sentimental connection," Soto said.
Because the city's Department of Correction operates the site, using inmates from Rikers Island as gravediggers, access is restricted. Only relatives on a pre-authorized list can visit and only by a ferry that runs two days a month. In addition, visitors must be escorted and cannot use cell phones.
On Thursday, the City Council held a hearing on legislation to increase access and have the Parks Department oversee the island instead.
"A cemetery should not be guarded by law enforcement. They have a lot of jobs that they have to do," said City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez.
Hart Island has been used as a cemetery for more than 150 years, mainly for the poor and people whose bodies have not been claimed by their families. But during the hearing some Council members accused the city of allowing the burial ground to fall into such a state of disrepair that human remains have washed into the Long Island Sound.
The Council members say they don’t want to wait until a study is completed or a bill is passed. They want the city to ease restrictions and increase access to Hart Island as soon as possible.
The de Blasio administration announced that it supports giving the Parks Department control over the island, and increasing access to it. But the administration said it wants to locate a new site for future burials before making any changes. Officials said Hart Island is projected to run out of burial space in eight to 10 years.
"This is a really significant change in 150 years in city practice. We want to make sure that the end result is thoughtful," said Matt Drury, director of government relations for the Parks Department.
Not everyone is happy with increasing access to Hart Island. Cathy Swett said instituting regular ferry service between Hart and City islands would overwhelm her community.
"City Island cannot handle the access with one lane on, one lane off traffic," she said.
But relatives of those buried on Hart Island are endorsing the changes. And based on the hearing and the administration's response, it seems likely they will occur, although it is not clear when.