The ferryboat Michael Cosgrove slowly emerged from the early morning fog enveloping Long Island Sound like something out of a gloomy Gothic tale.
Its appearance seemed fitting. The 60-foot, city-owned vessel's job is to carry New York's unknown and unclaimed dead across a narrow channel to their final resting place on Hart Island.
Less than a mile east of City Island in the Bronx, the unpopulated island, purchased by the city in 1868, is the largest public cemetery in the nation. More than a million people are buried in this potter's field, which has been under the control of the city Correction Department for more than a century. Select inmates from city jails perform burials, and access to the island is limited. Boaters are warned to keep off shore.
Politicians and advocates are working to decide what's next for the 101-acre, roughly heart-shaped sliver of land, which has an air of neglect and decay. Once used by the city as a workhouse, military base, psychiatric facility, drug rehabilitation center and as a Cold War military Nike missile base, it had a church and a power plant and other buildings. The island's structures and monuments have largely fallen into disrepair.
Damage and erosion caused by superstorm Sandy recently left human remains uncovered, prompting a push to get the city to address how to care for the place.
Leading the effort on the political front is City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), a former high school teacher who until the latest discovery of disinterred bones said he didn’t even know Hart Island existed. Now, Rodriguez thinks the burial ground should be refurbished and made a public place of historical importance, perhaps with a small museum. He has reintroduced a bill, first proposed in 2016, to shift control of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
“I believe it is time,” Rodriguez told reporters recently at a memorial gazebo on the island. “It is about opening Hart Island, to make it more accessible to anyone, to tell the story about more than one million individuals being buried here.”
Correction officials said that the disinterred bones have been collected for reburial and that plans to rehabilitate the island’s damaged sea wall have been accelerated to begin in 2019.
Small groups of Rikers Island prisoners bury 30 to 40 bodies a week in large trenches, which can hold about 150 sets of remains. Burial spots are denoted by markers made of plastic piping or whitewashed vertical stones.
Workers disinter about 40 bodies a year at the request of families for burial elsewhere, said Carleen McLaughlin, the Correction Department's director of legislative affairs and special projects.
A special section on the eastern part of the island facing Long Island Sound contains markers for infant burials.
For many years, those who made the trip to Hart Island couldn’t visit the grave sites of their loved ones. But in 2015, the Correction Department settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of relatives of people buried there. Now, relatives can go to the graves and sometimes leave flowers or mementos.
Visitation can be a time-consuming process, said Melinda Hunt, head of the nonprofit Hart Island Project. Registration for a trip has to be made months in advance. Visitors are escorted to the approximate grave location by a correction officer, a situation some families find disconcerting, Hunt said.
Rodriguez is proposing that the city provide more regular ferry service for families. “It doesn’t make sense for someone to schedule a visit here six months in advance,” Rodriguez said. “This place should be open any time, when any loved one would like to come here.”
Justin von Bujdoss, one of the chaplains for the Correction Department, said Hart Island plays an important role for grieving families. “It is very painful to have someone you love end up here,” Bujdoss said. “Yet, they are here and so there is a way to connect to them."
Bujdoss said the staff working on Hart Island have a real reverence for it. “For me this is a very special place really, what it means to be human, what it means to connect to people, what it means to love and also what it means to lose someone.”
“Being a city cemetery, it represents that whole history of the entire city,” Bujdoss said.
For Hunt and Rodriguez, a long-term solution is vital. Many of the buildings, including a chapel, should be fenced off and allowed to naturally crumble, Hunt said.
Rodriguez favors use of one building as a museum to chronicle the history of the island and the dead. Hunt believes the island could be reforested and used more widely as a natural burial space, not just as a potter's field.
“I intend to make this a citywide conversation,” Rodriguez said.