More family members will be able to visit the graves of loved ones buried in New York City’s potter’s field, Hart Island, under a modification of a settlement announced today between the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York City. Under the modification, the maximum number of visitors per month will increase by 40 percent, from 50 to 70 people. The Department of Correction has also agreed to provide visitors with photographs of gravesite visits under a three-month pilot program. Hart Island is the final resting place for 1 million people and the largest mass grave in the United States.
“Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial, and this increase in gravesite visitation is one more step towards honoring the memory of people buried there,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case.
The NYCLU filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 challenging a city policy barring people from visiting the gravesites of their loved ones buried on the island. In July of 2015, the city settled with the NYCLU and agreed to allow family members to visit the graves. Under the settlement, the city agreed to provide ferry service to the island, allow visitors to leave mementos (such as flowers, stuffed animals, prayer cards, small flags and blankets) at gravesites, and to maintain a database of all people buried on the island and the location of their graves.
Hart Island is an uninhabited island at the western end of Long Island Sound, just off of City Island in the Bronx. New York City has owned Hart Island since 1868, and the island serves as the city’s only active potter’s field for the internment of people who cannot afford burial or whose bodies are unclaimed. An estimated 1 million people, including children, are buried on Hart Island, making it one of the largest cemeteries in the country. Currently, Hart Island is operated by the New York City Department of Correction, and prisoners are used to conduct burials and maintain the island.
The NYCLU’s lawsuit charged that the city’s policy barring Hart Island gravesite visits violated the federal constitutional rights of due process and free exercise of religion and similar protections under the New York Constitution.