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ot many people are aware of what is housed within the famous Hart Island in New York City. Locals nicknamed the island as “death island” not necessarily because of the large number of corpses buried on a small island, but because of the origin of the corpses. But why Hart island? In 1869, New York really started to boom as a major city in the world due to the high levels of immigrants coming into the country. This meant that the level of death within the city also started to rise. Quite soon, the number of people that would die in various ways, either a natural death or from criminal events, became a big problem as the main graveyard within New York didn’t have the space to house all of them.

Hart Island circa 1950s (Source: Collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Therefore, Hart Island — which didn’t have a specific use at the time — was chosen to dispose of the corpses that presented less importance or the corpses that were unidentified or unclaimed. You would imagine that the corpses would at least get a stone with something written to represent the person that lays there, but no.

The Potter’s Field, the Common Trench,” taken circa 1890 on Hart Island (Source: Collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

Most of the corpses within the island were placed in wooden boxes large enough to fit them and stacked like lego pieces within the ground. This also became a popular place for the mafia to bury some of their enemies without anyone knowing in the 1920s.

Boxes containing the corpses of buried people on Hart Island are being relocated (Source: The Hart Island Project)

The island was heavily used during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic where more than 250,000 corpses were buried within that period alone in the same manner. Justin von Bujdoss, the cemetery’s Chaplain explains that the stacked corpses weren’t done out of respect for the dead or because of laziness, but due to the island being quite small (130 acres) and not being able to fit all the corpses if buried one by one.

The Chaplain of the cemetery says:

“Hart Island is like a shadow of New York City, It reflects the lives of people who live on the margins — the homeless, the sickly, the neglected, the forgotten and overworked.”

Justin von Bujdoss

This quote represents the majority of people that have been buried on the island, as most of the corpses were of immigrants, homeless, and poor people that society just put on the side and didn’t have the money to get a proper burial ground. Many of the immigrants that came into the country in the 19th and 20th centuries never had any other family around. So, upon an unexpected death, the authorities had no choice but to place them in a crate and bury them with the others.

Logbook entries from 1949 (Source: Collections of the Museum of the City of New York)

It is as if New York had been trying to hide the corpses of those that they have been pushing to the side their whole lives.

People still being buried today

You can imagine that the current pandemic had brought a lot of death, especially in such populated cities as New York, so much so that the problem of finding people to bury came back. Some people prefer to be cremated whilst others don’t or aren’t allowed by their religion. So the only solution was Hart Island.

Since the start of the pandemic over 5,000 corpses have been buried on Hart Island and before the pandemic the yearly count of corpses buried here was around 1,000, varying from year to year. The island is not open to the public and if someone wants to visit the burial ground of a loved one special arrangements must be done as it is not easy to get to the island.

What is even more interesting is that New York City is the only municipality to require people to acquire a death certificate prior to visiting their public cemeteries.

What is a bit sad is that from all the entries within the logbooks for almost 200 years of over one million corpses, only 63,168 are logged. As mentioned before, many of the people buried on the island were unidentified, therefore only given a number when buried.

The island is slowly disintegrating

The major problem faced by the council of New York City is that since 2017 Hart island started to slowly disintegrate due to high erosion caused by huge masses of carbon monoxide from the ongoing traffic. This means that the island is slowly crumbling into the waters of New York City with some of the corpses which were straight-up buried in the ground without being placed inside a box.

Bones from the burial ground coming out of the ground (Source: The Hart Island Project)

Since 2018, New York City has been making big investments in trying to stop the disintegration of the island and trying to rebury some of the corpses that may be in danger, whilst cremating corpses that are found in the decaying dirt.

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