Hart Island: Probably the Saddest Place in New York

5:26 pm  |  08.10.2021

Hart Island has been New York’s poor cemetery for 150 years. Actually, the isolated small island in front of the Bronx was supposed to be turned into a public park, then the Corona crisis intervened – and threw Hart Island into the spotlight.

The white sailing boats sway gently in the salty ocean water, in the distance the skyscrapers of Manhattan rise in the midday sun. But the flags with the stars and stripes are also blowing at half-mast here on the outskirts of the metropolis.

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And whoever goes to the other end of the avenue will see the reason for it. A sign reads “Sperrgebiet”, through the chain-link fence you can see a jetty. A few hundred meters behind is Hart Island – made famous because many covid 19 dead were buried in mass graves on this island. Pictures of it went around the world.

The Cemetery of the Forgotten

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the metropolis of New York hard. Around 170,000 people have already contracted the virus in the city of around nine million people, and more than 18,000 have probably died from it. A small fraction of those people has been buried in simple wooden coffins on Hart Island – the homeless, those who have no families or cannot be identified, and those whose families cannot afford another funeral.

The Turbulent History of Hart Island

Archaeologists are now conducting inspections for exposed remains and will remove any they find and store them until the city’s restoration of the shoreline is complete.

Hart Island has been New York’s poor cemetery for around 150 years. In addition, the island, which is largely inaccessible to the public, was already a prisoner of war – during the American Civil War and World War II, when three German prisoners of war were held there. A tuberculosis sanatorium, a poor house, and a psychiatric clinic were already housed on the island, the buildings of which have long since fallen into disrepair.

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In the past 150 years, more than a million dead have been buried on the 400,000 square meter island off the coast of the Bronx.

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Public Park Plans Postponed

“The images of our New York companions being buried on Hart Island are heartbreaking for all of us,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. But he also emphasized, “There will be no mass funerals on Hart Island. Everything will take place individually and each corpse will be treated with dignity.”

According to the city administration, there would still be enough space to use the island as a poor cemetery for around ten years. She had recently actually planned to convert Hart Island into a public park in the medium term. Details and schedule were not yet exactly clear – but have now been completely mixed up by the corona pandemic.

No Visits Allowed

Today the island is one of the most sealed-off places in the entire city. Relatives of the deceased cannot visit the graves on the other side of the water at the moment. From the jetty, you can only see the abandoned buildings and woods. Until a few days ago, trucks with corpses were regularly shipped from all parts of New York to Hart Island.

Now their numbers have fallen a little again, but the makeshift morgues remain: a little more than ten kilometers away, in the parking lot of a sports stadium on Randalls Island between Manhattan and Queens, the trailers are standing in long rows. There were days when most of them were in operation and standing all over town picking up the masses of corpses that the clinics could no longer handle.

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Forgotten Island

“For the vast majority of New Yorkers, Hart Island doesn’t even exist,” wrote the New York Times. 

Funerals take place there all the time – usually, before the start of the corona pandemic, but nobody looked. “Hart Island has always been there. The privilege of ignoring it is another privilege that the current crisis has put on record. “

Behind the chain-link fence in front of Hart Island, a worker noticed the visitor. He asks kindly if he could help. As almost always these days, the conversation quickly turns to the worries in the crisis and the horror stories that far too many in the city have now experienced. His cousin, a New York bus driver, died of Covid-19 two days ago.

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