Inside the push to open up Hart Island, NYC's COVID cemetery

·Contributor
·11 min read

When the time came, Gleny Reyes Gomez knew her father wanted to be buried alongside family in the Dominican Republic.

For two years, she’s been working to fulfill his wish.

Juan Reyes, an 80-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic, died from complications related to COVID-19 on April 8, 2020, as the devastating first wave of the pandemic broke over New York City. But when Reyes Gomez, a sister in the Brooklyn Diocese, paid a funeral home to claim his body, it took the money and disappeared, she said.

Her father was instead interred on Hart Island — the site of New York City’s COVID-19 mass grave, and long a final resting place for the city’s unclaimed dead. She’s still trying to bring him back.

Bodies being buried on Hart Island
An image captured by a drone shows bodies being buried on New York City's Hart Island amid the first outbreak of COVID-19 in April 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

“She doesn’t get peace if he’s in a place where he has no family,” said Elizabeth Deleon, a registered nurse and a friend of Reyes Gomez, who translated for her. “She feels that is not humane. She got no closure.”

Reyes Gomez's father is one of many New Yorkers with family interred on Hart Island, including victims of COVID and other epidemics. As many as 1 in 10 of New York City’s over 40,000 COVID victims have been interred there, according to city data analyzed by The City and Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Now, two years since burials of COVID victims began, an effort is underway to transform the island into an open, manicured public cemetery. So far, it has remained largely closed off to the public, and difficult to visit even for bereaved families.

Hart Island has for over 150 years held the remains of New York City’s unclaimed dead, as well as of those who may have preferred a city burial for personal or financial reasons. But in April 2020, aerial footage of hazmat-suited incarcerated workers burying rows of coffins turned the island into a national symbol of the impact of the pandemic.

Those images came amid Hart Island’s transfer from the city’s Department of Correction to the Parks Department, as part of an ongoing effort to make the cemetery more accessible. But some advocates have something more in mind for the island: a national monument to the victims of COVID-19 and the pandemics that came before.

“That would be extremely helpful in terms of healing in response to the COVID pandemic, and recognizing all the earlier epidemics that are represented in a cemetery that goes back to 1869,” said Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, whose organization advocates for Hart Island and the families of those buried there. “All of those diseases had devastating effects on the city, and are part of the history of New York and the history of the United States.”

An aerial view of two deep trenches on Hart Island, one filling up with a score of wooden coffins as people in hazmat suits work with an earth mover.
Bodies being buried on Hart Island on April 9, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The island

Hart Island’s status as a destination for unclaimed bodies, and its long-running association with the penal system, have earned it a negative reputation among some New Yorkers. But to Justin von Bujdoss, the island’s former chaplain, it represents a rare place of solace in noisy, frenetic New York, across the water.

Von Bujdoss recalls one exception: the eerie silence in the metropolis in the early days of the pandemic, when the empty streets mimicked the stillness of the cemetery. Hart Island, which lies at the western tip of the Long Island Sound adjacent to the Bronx, played an essential role in those days, when hospitals were overwhelmed and the city had to bring in freezer trucks to store the bodies of victims.

Von Bujdoss was part of that effort, blessing the coffins that came to the island each day before workers laid them to rest in orderly rows.

“This island manifests stillness and peace that surrounds the resting of so many people,” he said. “Everybody saw this as incredibly important and sacred work.”

Between April 2020 and December 2021, von Bujdoss estimates, he blessed over 2,000 bodies, many of them COVID victims. Although he’s no longer blessing them, those burials continue.

Hart Island’s history as a public cemetery long predates the pandemic, beginning in 1869. Today its only role is as a cemetery, but the abandoned buildings scattered across the island — an asylum, a drug rehabilitation center, a Nike missile silo — attest to its other uses as recently as the 1970s.

“There are still people living on City Island that remember those times before it was shut,” said Sally Raudon, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, who has studied Hart Island. “There was a thriving community out there. It was quite self-sufficient.”

Hart Island’s current and former uses are in line with New York City’s tendency to hide “inconvenient” things on its outlying islands, Raudon said. Those have included disposing of the bodies of casualties of a host of epidemics, from yellow fever and tuberculosis in the 19th century to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

White markers flag burial sites at the potter's field on Hart Island, showing the shoreline in the foreground.
In this image from 2019, white markers indicate burial sites at the potter's field on Hart Island. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images)

The year 2020 saw at least 2,334 adults buried on Hart Island, more than double the number buried in 2019 and 1,000 more than the worst year for AIDS burials, according to The City’s analysis of city data. A disproportionate number came from impoverished neighborhoods and communities of color.

Despite the multitude of New Yorkers with ties to the island, accessing it requires careful planning and submission to a vetting process — something advocates see as a holdover from when it was under the control of the Department of Correction.

The Parks Department keeps a tight lid on visits to the island, and those who do visit are required to provide a list of guests if they plan to bring any with them. The intent is apparently to limit the total number of people visiting at one time and to prevent people with no connection to the deceased, and members of the media, from showing up in the guise of a private visit.

Deleon, translating for Reyes Gomez, said: “She wants to be able to go to see her father, but she feels that there's so many restrictions,” including having to "list a whole list of visitors as if she was arrested, in jail.” At the same time, she emphasized how grateful Reyes Gomez is for the graciousness of the Parks Department staff.

The island is accessible by ferry from neighboring City Island on two days every month, both of those days on weekends. Visitors must reserve visits in advance, with priority given to those with close personal ties to the deceased, said Dan Kastanis, a spokesperson for the Parks Department. All public and media visits to the island remain suspended indefinitely in response to COVID-19.

Visitors must present identification before boarding the ferry. A shuttle bus drops visitors off at various points around the island, and Parks Department staff guide them to the gravesite, Kastanis said.

There is little room to wander, explore or gather, Hunt said, something she feels undermines Hart Island’s role in the grieving process and adds to its stigma.

Elsie Soto, whose father, Norberto, is buried on the island, said the handover to the Parks Department has made visits less intimidating, and the island has since become better maintained. But some of the biggest hurdles for family members remain: the limited transportation options to get there, and the fact that they cannot visit their loved ones when they choose.

“There's never going to be a time where I'm going to be able to visit my dad on Father's Day,” Soto said. “I just hope they can figure out something better.”

Expanding access

New York’s City Council has passed long-term plans to transform the island into a regularly accessible public cemetery. But how long that transformation will take, and what exactly the end product will look like, is not clear.

An $85 million investment, announced last year, will go in part toward beautifying the island and demolishing abandoned structures. The city has also brought on a landscaping contractor — albeit one with a disputed track record — to carry out future burials and help maintain the cemetery.

An ongoing burial capacity study by the city’s Human Resources Administration will also inform future plans for the island, Kastanis said. The HRA has brought on a vendor, 3RDI Technologies, to conduct the study, a spokesperson for the agency told Yahoo News. It is slated for release by the end of this summer.

“We know that Hart Island is sacred ground for the countless New Yorkers who have relatives, friends and ancestors buried there,” Kastanis said. Alongside the HRA, which oversees burials, the Parks Department is “determining what visits to the island will look like post-pandemic,” he said.

A half-dozen workers, one in a mask, sail back to the mainland aboard a ferry carrying white New York City Department of Corrections vans.
Workers in personal protective equipment and New York City Department of Correction vehicles arrive at a dock in the Bronx after leaving Hart Island on April 8, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

In response to the City Council legislation, officials are drafting a plan to “ensure the availability” of ferry service to the island. That plan must be submitted to the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams by July 1, Kastanis said — a year after the island’s handover from the Department of Correction.

City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, who represents the district that includes Hart Island and City Island, told Yahoo News she would like to see ferry service to the island expanded. But she wants that plan to factor in the concerns of City Island residents, who are worried about the increased traffic that those changes could bring.

The current system is especially burdensome for New Yorkers who don’t drive or who live in distant boroughs, Soto said.

Hunt believes the handover between city agencies was the right step for Hart Island. But she also feels the city’s massive investment in the island is wasted if it remains as closed off to the public as it was under the Department of Correction.

Advocates hope the transition and any changes to come help reshape New York’s relationship with Hart Island, dispelling some of the stigma surrounding it.

“Just because it's a mass grave or it's a public cemetery doesn't mean that it shouldn't have the same respect as Arlington,” Soto said. “We have millions of New Yorkers there. They need to be memorialized. They need to be remembered with respect and dignity.”

A monument to COVID-19 victims

The idea of a monument dedicated to COVID-19 victims on Hart Island isn’t a new one. As early as July 2020, a proposal to establish a task force exploring such an idea came before the City Council, although it never advanced.

No concrete plans for a city or national monument have emerged. But after the grim milestone of 1 million COVID deaths in the United States, those familiar with the island’s history and current significance say it warrants the recognition.

A memorial or monument could commemorate not just the current pandemic but also victims of previous scourges, like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, they said.

What form such a monument would take remains unclear, but those close to the island advocate for an approach that, in von Bujdoss’s words, doesn’t “lose sight of how sacred the ground is.”

A stone cross and gravestones on City Island looking over to Hart Island, with small tugboats on the water.
Hart Island seen from City Island on April 8, 2020. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

For Hunt, that would entail maintaining Hart Island as a more sustainable natural burial ground, rather than a manicured cemetery. Specifically, she’d like to see the island become a national monument administered by the National Park Service.

“I don't think we should build a visitor center out there,” she said. "But that conversation needs to take place in public."

The pandemic continues, as does Hart Island’s role in responding to it. Burials of COVID-19 victims on the island go on, as do disinterments of those claimed by family members.

On her most recent trip there, in April, Reyes Gomez saw evidence of other bodies unearthed, Deleon said. The sight left her frustrated, wondering why, for her father, the same process had taken so long.

Two years, several applications for help, and another scam later, Reyes Gomez is still trying to bring him back. (The HRA declined to comment on her case, citing New York State Social Services Law.)

With approval from a funeral home, all that remains is for the city to schedule a date, Deleon said.

“She doesn’t care about the compensation, the money, any of that. She just really wants her father,” she said. “But everything seems to be so delayed. We have no help.”