As many as 1 million people are buried at Hart...

As many as 1 million people are buried at Hart Island, New York City's public cemetery. Credit: Charles Eckert

Twice a month, a 10-minute ferry ride from City Island in the Bronx transports a group of visitors to the little-known Hart Island — the city’s public cemetery and, until recently, off limits to the general public.

The island is the burial site of indigent or unclaimed New York City residents. Since 1869, as many as 1 million people have been interred in what city park ranger Michael Whitten recently described as “the largest taxpayer-funded cemetery in the world.”

Victims of the AIDS crisis, facing stigma even in death, were laid to rest there. And in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the island became a temporary mass grave, as hospital morgues and funeral homes were inundated with bodies.

But the island has also been the site of a 19th century fort, a quarantine station during the yellow fever epidemic, a psychiatric hospital, a tuberculosis ward, a reform school, a homeless shelter, a jail and a drug rehabilitation center. And in the 1920s, it was nearly home to an amusement park for Black people, who at the time were barred from such recreational facilities.

Over the centuries, the island has had several names, and no one knows why it was ultimately called Hart Island. The public was barred from accessing the 131 acres until 2005, when relatives of those buried there were able to visit. The island was transferred in 2021 from the city’s Department of Correction (inmates had handled the burial of more than 1,000 bodies a year) to the Parks Department and Department of Social Services.

And since November, rangers have been leading 2½-hour tours every other Tuesday. The tours are limited to 30 people, and the free tickets are obtained through a lottery.

Each tour covers half the island, since, Ranger Kasha Pazdar explained, “It’s a little too big to do a walking tour of the entire island.”

The north side tour visits the earliest burial plots, a Civil War monument, a Nike missile site and the island’s deteriorated 1930s-era chapel, which is now being stabilized. The southern tour also visits the chapel, as well as the former site of the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center and the graves of AIDs victims buried there in the 1980s.

Because of the stigma of AIDS at the time, Pazdar said their plot was isolated from other burial sites and those interred were not identified. And unlike other burials, their coffins were buried individually, in contrast to three deep in the common graves.

Parks officials hope the tours will help educate the public about the island and its role in the city’s history.

“One of our goals is to dispel the mystery of Hart Island,” Whitten said.

IF YOU GO

To register for a Hart Island tour, visit nycgovparks.org /events/hart-island.

Be advised that the tour involves at least two hours of walking, some of which is on uneven terrain, according to the city Department of Parks & Recreation.

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