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New York City has experienced the brunt of the deaths of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. As has been the practice for over a century, many of the city’s unclaimed dead have ended up on Hart Island, which is located in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs that make up New York City.
However, recent drone footage has led to rumors that the island is now housing a mass grave for coronavirus victims.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has insisted that there are no mass graves on Hart Island, but he has explained that the city does use the property as a burial ground. In fact, the island’s role as a “potter’s field” goes back to just after the American Civil War.
Coronavirus burials on Hart Island
As the most populous city in the United States, New York City has seen more COVID-19 cases than most countries. In early April, amidst statewide efforts to flatten the curve, drone footage of burials on Hart Island went viral, leading to many questions about a part of New York City that most people will never see. Rumors of a mass grave in New York City began circulating shortly thereafter.
On Friday, April 10, Mayor de Blasio responded to those rumors in a series of tweets. “There will be no mass burials on Hart Island,” he stated. “Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledged that images of caskets being buried on Hart Island were real and “devastating for all of us.”
The mayor and his office have stated that some of those who have died due to COVID-19 would be buried on Hart Island, but that this would be a continuation of a policy that has long been in effect.
Prisoners burying the dead
Under normal circumstances, the burials are overseen by the Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prisons. Inmates at Rikers Island – a prison located on the East River between the Bronx and Queens that is scheduled to be closed in 2026 – have historically been brought over to dig the trenches where multiple caskets are laid.
However, in the wake of the pandemic, which has struck inside the prison, the state has had to rely on additional laborers to keep up with the increased workload. In addition to outside laborers, burials have been performed by pre-trial detainees who have yet to be convicted of a crime.
Since the epidemic began, the rate of burials on the island, which is located in Long Island Sound, have significantly increased. On average, roughly 25 burials take place a week on the island, but during the pandemic that number has increased to around two dozen per day, five days a week.
However, victims of the coronavirus are not indiscriminately buried on Hart Island. The remains that are taken there are mostly unclaimed bodies, but once they are claimed they can be disinterred and reburied.
The potter’s field of Hart Island
A 2016 New York Times report found that over one million people had been buried on Hart Island in the century and a half since it was bought by the city. Among the dead are unknown soldiers, the poor and homeless, unclaimed deceased elderly and thousands of babies.
Hart Island was originally bought by New York City in 1868, well before the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were joined into the city as four of the five boroughs (the original borough being Manhattan).
Hart Island became a burial ground for Confederate soldiers held as prisoners during the Civil War, as well as for poor immigrants, African Americans, and victims of the city’s slums.
The dead are buried in 15-foot trenches that generally run eight feet deep. Prior to the current epidemic, the dead would fill about 500 feet of trenches in a normal year across the 101-acre island. The deceased do not receive tombstones.
Hart Island is known as a potter’s field, a Biblical allusion that refers to a field bought using the 30 silver coins Judas was paid to betray Jesus. That field, known as “Akeldama” in Arabic, was called a “potter’s field” due to the high levels of clay.
Per Christian tradition, the field was unsuitable for farming because it was bought with tainted money, therefore it was used as a burial ground.
The Hart Island Project
According to The Times’ report, many of these “pauper’s graves” are filled with unclaimed bodies for whom there was no one to pay for a burial in a standard cemetery. Many families of the deceased are now working to find those who were buried on Hart Island and disinter their bodies so they can be buried elsewhere or given a burial more in line with their religious beliefs.
To assist in this work, the Hart Island Project was founded to help maintain documentation of everyone who is buried on the island. The group says that nearly 70,000 people have been buried in the island’s trenches since 1980. The group keeps meticulous records of all the deceased and publishes the information online. Most of the cadavers buried on the island these days are identified.
While the trenches could be considered “mass graves,” the founder of the Hart Island Project, Melinda Hunt, emphasized to CNN that “a Hart Island burial is not disrespectful.” The bodies are buried in individual caskets and the project is ensuring that the dead are not anonymous.
For burials on Hart Island prior to 1961, the information can be researched at the NYC Municipal Archives in Manhattan. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed most of the burial records from 1961 to 1977.