- In New York, unclaimed bodies have been buried on Hart Island for 151 years, but it hasn't been this busy since the AIDS epidemic.
- The average price of a New York funeral hovers around $8,000, and with a ongoing pandemic and a looming recession, more people may opt for a free city burial on Hart Island.
- Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, says that New York is prepared for the influx of bodies to bury, and that city burials are currently the best option for many people.
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When drone footage was released on April 2 of men digging trenches for mass graves on New York's Hart Island, people were horrified.
But Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, a non-profit dedicated to telling the stories of those who received city burials on this 151-year-old government island, had a different reaction. She was impressed.
"I looked at it and I thought, wow, they really cleaned it up," she told Insider. "It's much more streamlined and efficient than it was before."
In the footage, people could see piles of caskets lowered into trenches and then covered with dirt. It seemed like an anonymous burial system where the dead could be dumped and forgotten. But contrary to appearances, everyone who is buried at Hart Island has a death certificate, and is buried individually in a casket geo-located so precisely that visitors will soon be able to use the GPS systems on their phone to find exactly where their loved ones are.
For years, Hart Island was overscaled for New York's needs, burying only 1,100 people on the island annually. Hunt estimates that Hart Island will bury about 10,000 people this year, as bodies overwhelm cemeteries and crematoriums. And the onset of a recession means New York funerals, which typically cost about $8,000, will no longer be affordable for many.
"We're lucky that Hart Island has the capacity and a system of burials that will work well for the city," said Hunt.
Hunt has been visiting the 131-acre island since 1991, when victims of the AIDS epidemic were being buried by prison inmates wearing protective gear, who worked four days a week to bury unclaimed victims in separate graves.
In 1994 she began the Hart Island Project so the dead would not remain anonymous. The island only became accessible to families in 2014. Unclaimed bodies have been buried there for 150 years, since Union soldiers were buried during the American Civil War. There have been over a million burials total, making it one of the largest mass graves in America.
Before COVID-19, burials happened once a week, with people driving up whatever bodies the medical examiner had released that week. Within an hour of arrival, the bodies were buried.
"They're doing 25 [burials] a day, five days a week, right now," said Hunt, referring to early April. "But they're all done by 7:30 in the morning so they could definitely speed it up if they wanted to, and it would still be a very orderly process."
A city burial is the best option for some people right now, according to Hunt
New York State now has more coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, and Hunt says the city is prepared for the uptick in burials.
"We've been through these epidemics before," said Hunt, noting that Hart Island was used in both the 1918 flu pandemic and with the AIDS epidemic. "This is the one area where New York actually has the capacity, and the system will work just fine."
The bodies are buried in an easy-to-track geolocated grid system, in long trenches, which are actually a series of continuous plots. The plots can contain 150 adult bodies, or 1,000 infant ones. The boxes of bodies are stacked three high and two across. Within that grid, each box is numbered as a grave.
With a family's permission, or if no family members or loved ones are present, the medical examiner will release the body for a city burial. Ordinarily the body has to be unclaimed for 30 days for a Hart Island burial, but during the crisis that has been shortened to 14 days.
"People shouldn't be afraid of a city burial," said Hunt. "It's a tried-and-true burial process that's served the city for over 150 years, and it's probably more orderly than working with a private funeral director or crematorium, because they are at capacity now and cemeteries are running out of space."
Recently, the city ended the use of inmate labor to dig graves, further destigmatizing the process, and Hunt says by July 2021 the parks department will take over full management of Hart Island. People will not have to go through the penal system to arrange visitations to this green space off the coast off the Bronx, with views of the Long Island Sound.
"Parks will turn it into a very peaceful place for people to visit," Hunt said. She says people who have been determined to get their loved ones disinterred often visit the island and change their minds.
In addition to the burial site, the island's been everything from a tuberculosis ward to a workhouse for prisoners to an amusement park for the black community, barred from ''whites only'' amusement parks.
This right to a burial is one of New York's oldest laws
The policy on the right of burial in New York goes back to English common law. "It's part of the constitution of the state," said Hunt, "it's probably our oldest law."
The law says that if a family didn't agree to a city burial, or the body was mistakenly sent to Hart Island, the city is required to return the remains back to the family, provided they have a grave site in mind, up to 25 years later. That's why New York has places like Hart Island and it's why it doesn't cremate the dead, unlike states such as California, where unclaimed bodies can be cremated.
"There's only one thing the city can do and that's a Hart Island burial, and that will continue through this pandemic," said Hunt.
Hunt's mission right now is to demystify and destigmatize city burials for people, and she plans to continue to tell the stories of the people buried on the island with the Hart Island Project.
"The city is going to be very short of money after this," she said. "But we want to make sure that this is a priority, that we don't forget the people who died during this pandemic."
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