Hart Island: The City Cemetery

Currently, the Department of Correction (DOC) maintains and operates the City Cemetery, commonly known as Potter’s Field, located on Hart Island, in Long Island Sound. The cemetery on Hart Island is purportedly the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

By many estimations, there are over one million people buried on Hart Island.

Hart Island was first used by the City as a public cemetery in 1869 for the burial of people who died indigent or whose bodies went unclaimed after their death.

In 2018, 1,213 individuals were buried on Hart Island, including 303 fetal remains, 81 children, and 829 adults.

Following a lawsuit and lobbying by advocates, Department of Correction now provides regular, monthly visits to Hart Island.

People Buried on Hart Island

Total Buried
+1 Million People
1869 – 2018


Buried in 2018
1,213 People

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Hart Island Background

Hart Island, located in the Bronx, is the only location the City currently uses to bury the bodies of the unclaimed or unidentified.

Most individuals buried on Hart Island (approximately 62 percent in 2018) have a next of kin who opted for a public burial.

Others may have a next of kin who is unknown or unreachable (33 percent).

Some are unidentified or do not have a next of kin.

Fifteen people or fewer are unidentified each year, and about 21 percent of the burials are fetal remains.


Hart Island & the AIDS epidemic

In 1978, 865 people were buried on Hart Island.

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the number of individuals buried on Hart Island each year increased markedly, which coincided with the AIDS epidemic.

The first people identified as AIDS victims were buried on Hart Island in 1985.

They were buried in an isolated area away from the remains of other individuals, in deep individual graves, under several feet of dirt instead of the typical three.

Number of People Buried on hart Island

1978 – 2016

Hart Island staff at the time, like many others, did not know how AIDS could spread and acted out of an overabundance (and unnecessary level) of caution.

As the New York Times points out, “the island would go on to receive scores, if not hundreds, of people who died during the AIDS epidemic, which during the 1980s and 1990s killed more than 100,000 people in New York, about a quarter of AIDS deaths nationwide during the same period.” Thus, Hart Island may be the largest cemetery for victims of the AIDS epidemic.


Hart Island: Premature Death

Age of People Buried on Hart Island and National Average

1978 – 2016, Average age of children and adults

The average age of those buried on Hart Island in 1978 was 60 years old. That is much younger than the national average (73 years old) at that time.

During the AIDS epidemic, there was a drop in the average age of those buried on Hart Island, with an extreme drop to 52 years old in 1990.

More recently, the average age of those buried on Hart Island was still much younger than the national average.

In 2016, for those buried on Hart Island, the average age of death was 65 years old, while the average of death nationally was roughly 79 years old.


Hart Island: Location of Death Over Time

Hart Island: Location of Death Over Time

1978 – 2016


Hart Island Burial Process

Four days each week, seven DOC staff members and eight incarcerated individuals travel by ferry from City Island to Hart Island.

Both the staff and work detail are responsible for the burial of remains, and for tending to the Island’s upkeep.

The bodies of the deceased that are transported to the Island are placed in pine boxes marked by black permanent marker.

The boxes are sometimes marked with a name, but usually just with a number used to identify the person.

The boxes are stacked three deep in a trench 36 inches below the surface, burying between 150 to 162 adults and 1,000 infant and fetal remains per trench.


Visiting Hart Island

Visiting Hart Island is not easy.

According to DOC, there are two options visitors may choose from when seeking to visit Hart Island, both of which operate on predetermined schedules: monthly gazebo visits for any member of the public and monthly gravesite visits for family.

Visitors must register with the Department of Correction before a scheduled visit day and provide a valid, government-issued photo ID if over the age of 16.

While access to the Island and its burial records have improved, there are still concerns about Hart Island’s accessibility.

Although the Department of Correction has received positive feedback for its service, family members, friends, and members of the public have testified that they prefer to not feel as if they are visiting a prison when going to visit their loved one and/or pay their respects at Hart Island.

According to advocates, the requirement of a photo ID and other protocols for visiting Hart Island deter members of the public from being able to visit.

Furthermore, because of the nature of DOC’s work, the visiting schedule is rigid and can act as a barrier for members of the public.


Legislation

This new legislative package includes several bills that together will help to examine the City’s burial process, improve accessibility to Hart Island, and respect the memory of those buried there.

The legislative package includes bills that:

  • Transfer jurisdiction over Hart Island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Read the Bill: Int 906
  • Require the Department of Transportation to develop a plan to maintain and operate regular ferry service to Hart Island. Read the Bill: Int 909
  • Create a task force on public burial and related issues. Read the Bill: Int 1580
  • Establishes an office to provide support to those in need of burial assistance. Read the Bill: Int 1559

 For feedback, comments, and questions please email datainfo@council.nyc.gov.

Created by the NYC Council Data Team.