With thousands of deceased buried beneath its surface, Hart Island is home to the largest publicly funded cemetery on the planet. Hidden away on the northeastern edge of New York City on the Long Island Sound, it’s off-limits to the general public. Since the 1800s, it’s acted as a potter’s field, or a mass grave that serves as the final resting place for many of the city’s most disenfranchised citizens.
The place has long been one of the most mysterious and spookiest locations within the five boroughs, and now activists are claiming that many of its skeletons are coming out of the closet.
Members of the Hart Island Project, a grassroots organization, told CBS New York earlier this week that bones and human remains buried on the island are washing up into the Long Island Sound. The island was flooded when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, damaging its seawall and unearthing bodies across its mile-long stretch. And despite a $13 million grant from FEMA in 2015 to repair the damage there, the city does not have plans to begin reconstruction on the space until 2020.
The claimed lack of upkeep has led to a grim situation for residents of City Island and other areas in the northeast corner of the Bronx—visitors to Orchard Beach are literally sharing waters with bodies that were put in the ground decades ago.
The situation has renewed calls from Hart Island Project and other activists for the city to turn the island into a public park. Currently, it’s run by the Department of Corrections, and inmates at Rikers Island do the labor of receiving and burying bodies in its mass graves. Hart Island Project has already sponsored legislation to transfer jurisdiction of the space to the city’s Parks Department, and in 2015 former City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley introduced a bill that would do just that. That proposal became significantly more viable last year when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would close Rikers Island by 2027, but it likely won’t happen until the city makes repairs to stop the dead from washing into the Sound.
Until a fix is put in place, the mouth of the Long Island Sound looks like it will be New York City’s very own version of the Dead Sea.
Update: The New York City Department of Corrections deputy commissioner of public information Peter Thorne released the following statement, saying that the Hart Island Project’s claims of bones washing up in the Long Island Sound was false:
“This happened once in 2012, after one of the biggest hurricanes hit New York City and it has not happened since. The exposed remains were in one of the oldest burial sections of the island, and they were quickly reburied in a different part of the island that was not affected by the storm”