BRONX, N.Y. - Some have called it a home for mass graves, but for more than a hundred years, Hart Island has been the city’s public cemetery.
Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit which works to increase access to the island said the site is a well-managed public burial ground which has operated for generations.
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“It is the burial place of over a million New Yorkers going back to 1869. So for 151 years this month Hart Island has been burying people in common graves,” Hunt said.
With recent images of temporary morgues, refrigerated trailers and body bags piling up, this week was increasingly dominated by questions over what the city would do with the dead.
This drone video footage, shot by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit which works to increase public access, shows bodies being buried in a trench last week.
But what you see here is not at all different from what the city has been doing for more than a hundred years: use inmate labor to bury people whose bodies are unclaimed.
"I don’t think that a common burial on Hart Island should be viewed as a negative thing, this is something the city does quite well. What we need right now is more clear messaging, the public can deal with being told the truth," Hunt said.
City officials acknowledge there’s been an increase in the number of burials on the island in recent days, but say those are all bodies who were never claimed.
Mayor de Blasio has refused to discuss the city's contingency plans in public, but he has stressed the city's capacity has not yet run out and Hart Island isn’t being used for temporary burials yet.
“What it means is that people passing away because of disease, and there is no family member, no loved one, no friend who we can find who has a connection and can take responsibility for their burial,” de Blasio said.
“The city of NY steps up and says that person will be buried in Hart. If a family does then show up, we return the body,” he added.
There is a plan for the city to use Hart Island as a temporary overflow site if needed. For now the bodies being buried there are unclaimed, but given the city’s ongoing health crisis, it also means they could include people who died from the coronavirus.
As of last week, the city is no longer using inmate labor to bury the dead. An outside contractor has been secured to perform that work.