Vaughn Wallace / Al Jazeera America

World’s largest tax-funded site of mass graves might be turned into a park

NY City Council discusses turning Hart Island, where more 1 million poor and unclaimed people are buried, into a park

NEW YORK — Rosalee Grable looks out over rows of white pipes, some broken or covered in mud, sticking out of a dirt field on Hart Island. Each tube marks the grave of 150 adults — homeless, poor, veterans and unclaimed individuals who couldn’t afford anything but a spot in what's widely believed to be the world’s largest tax-funded site of mass graves.

Grable, a 64-year-old resident of the city’s Upper West Side, wants grass and wildflowers to hide the dirty white plastic. She has come here to honor her mother, who died in a hospital bed with no savings to leave her daughter.

“I’m still getting used to the idea that my mommy wound up in a potter’s grave,” Grable said. “I know that my mother was expecting something much more traditional.”

On Wednesday city officials at a council hearing discussed turning the site into something more customary — a park, where people could visit freely to mourn their dead and learn about the city's history. The island has also hosted a tuberculosis hospital, a boys' reformatory and a women's asylum, and the first child to die of AIDS in the United States also buried on the island. A vote on the issue could be scheduled later this year.

Rosalee Grable visited her mother's grave on Dec. 6, 2015.
Vaughn Wallace / Al Jazeera America

Grable had hoped to bury her mother in Michigan, where she grew up. But it would cost $1,000 to open the grave, $1,000 to close it and $1,800 to engrave the name, she said. So her mother received a city burial, just like the more than 1 million others buried since 1868 on the island, off New York’s Bronx borough. Hart Island is run by the Department of Correction (DOC), using inmates from the nearby Riker’s Island jail complex who are paid a small wage to bury the dead. The public may visit a gazebo on the island only once a month, and relatives of the deceased may visit burial areas once a month under the supervision of an armed corrections officer.

New York City Council member Elizabeth Crowley, who has introduced a draft bill to transfer jurisdiction of the island from the DOC to the Department of Parks and Recreation, said Wednesday that DOC personnel aren’t trained to manage a massive grave site and lack the necessary expertise to update burial practices that date back to the 19th century.

“In transferring the island over the parks department we could look at exploring and making reforms to the burial process — reforms that include reducing the size of mass graves so that they can be closed more quickly, using plantings to mark where the graves are and taking necessary measures to prevent soil erosion,” she said.

Melinda Hunt, founder of The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of Hart Island's history, said the island’s landscape needs to be stabilized so graves don’t collapse or erode.

“After decades of neglect, Hart Island must be made safe,” Hunt said Wednesday at the council hearing. Each time a big storm hits the island, she said, “human bones are exposed along the eroding shoreline.”

Relatives of the dead have also expressed concerns about the heavy equipment used to dig graves and close trenches, where about 1,500 people out of 50,000 who die in the city are buried each year. The weight of the machines has caused some of the graves to collapse, Hunt said.

She also said she’d like the city to offer a more hospitable welcome to those who come to mourn loved ones. Prison guards, the confiscation of cellphones and industrial-scale burials intimidate visitors, she said.

One day last year, Grable was turned away from Hart Island because she forgot to register with the DOC. “It was one of the hardest moments in my life,” she said.

But the parks department opposes the island’s transfer from the DOC's jurisdiction to its own, saying it lacks the expertise and funds to manage an active burial site.

In July 2015, the DOC started allowing monthly visits to the gravesites as a result of a class-action lawsuit brought by relatives and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

As activists push for more, officers continue to ferry people to the island.

“City burials — people don’t understand what they really are. It’s not glamorous, but it’s as respectful as they can do,” a DOC officer said the day Grable visited.

But repairs are necessary, he said to a nearby colleague, pointing out a hole in a gazebo near the graves. “Next time we’re here we need a couple of hammers for these nails,” he said.

"The Department of Correction has administered the city cemetery on Hart Island for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility," Jeff Jacomowitz, a DOC spokesman, told Al Jazeera in a email. "For many years, the department conducted regular monthly visits to enable families and the public to pay their respects at a memorial area on the island, separate from the gravesites."

After the class-action lawsuit was settled in July, allowing monthly family visits to the gravesites, Grable felt confident more would change. “As long as the spotlight has been on these guys, they’ve moved mountains,” she said.

On a visit to her mother’s grave in December, she carried a bouquet of fresh, light and dark pink roses — like the flowers she bought for her mother on Valentine’s Day about a month before her death — and positioned them between four rocks on the spot where her mother was buried. Rain had washed away the plastic rose she brought on a previous visit, in August, an officer said. The flowers fell on the muddy ground.

“There needs to be grass,” she said.

Wearing a secondhand jacket and pink scarf, matching the color of the roses she brought, Grable said she wanted to join her mother and be buried there herself.

“Hart Island’s my family,” she said. “I’ll be real lucky if I get all the way here.”

Vaughn Wallace contributed reporting.

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