Over 1 million unclaimed bodies are buried on a little-known island in New York City — a mass graveyard where some coronavirus victims will go to rest

dmosher@businessinsider.com (Dave Mosher,Courtney Verrill)
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Mike Segar/Reuters

  • Hart Island, located in the Bronx, is the little-known home to City Cemetery: a potter's field where the bodies of the unclaimed or unknown are buried.

  • New York City bought the island in 1868 and has used it as a mass graveyard since 1869. Each year, about 1,000 bodies are laid to rest there, as well as 40 disinterred and reclaimed by families.

  • A funeral director told Business Insider that the city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner typically waits about 30 days before burying unclaimed bodies there.

  • However, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic — which has killed hundreds of people each day in April — the city shortened its holding window to six days, then 14 days after pushback by the funeral industry.

  • A photographer's rare visit to the island, as well as satellite and drone imagery, provide a glimpse of Hart Island and its 150-year history as a mass grave site.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In New York City, the bodies of the unknown, unclaimed, and often the poor have a bleak and typically final destination: a mass grave on an uninhabited island in the Bronx.

Each week, unclaimed human remains in NYC-run morgues are transported by ferry to City Cemetery, a potter's field on Hart Island. It is there they are buried below unmarked gravestones amid crumbling buildings, leaving no physical information about the deceased.

More than a million bodies rest there, making Hart Island the largest mass graveyard in the United States; about 1,000 new unidentified coffins are buried there each year, according to Reuters.

But with the spread of the novel coronavirus, the scene on Hart Island is changing.

Hundreds of people in the city are now dying each day from COVID-19 (the respiratory disease caused by the virus), grieving family members are finding themselves stuck in quarantine, and the city is on lockdown to limit the pandemic's spread. Meanwhile, even expanded hospital and city morgues are reaching capacity — so the city has prepared to temporarily inter an unprecedented number of unclaimed remains.

"The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we're seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately," Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Friday. "Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide."

Getting access to the cemetery is challenging, and photography and videography of any kind is typically prohibited. In 2016, however, the city provided a rare visit to photojournalist Mike Segar. Shifting city policies regarding the dead have also attracted satellites, drones, and offshore photographers.

Here's what those images show, and a brief history of how Hart Island came to be.

Hart Island is located in the Long Island Sound within the confines of the Bronx, New York City's northwestern borough.

new york city cemetery hart island potters field nyc bronx satellite map google photos labeled
new york city cemetery hart island potters field nyc bronx satellite map google photos labeled

Hart Island sits less than a mile east of Orchard Beach, located in Pelham Bay Park, and somewhat closer to City Island, a quaint seaside refuge in New York City.

hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx satellite photo april 6 2020 04 10T005937Z_1918691160_RC2C1G9ZSJLB_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
Orchard Beach, a crescent strip, is located at the top left. City Island sits to the south and Hart Island to the east.

New York City bought Hart Island in 1868. It's about a mile long from north to south and about half a mile wide at its center, where most of the mass graves are now located.

hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york city bronx satellite photo april 6 2020 2020 04 10T005947Z_215146081_RC2C1G9W8EYY_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york city bronx satellite photo april 6 2020 2020 04 10T005947Z_215146081_RC2C1G9W8EYY_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

The city converted much of the island into a cemetery in 1869. A prison on the island housed Confederate soldiers at the time.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Dilapidated buildings are reminders of the failed institutions that have been on the island at different times, including a halfway house, sanitarium, military camp, and missile base.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: New York Times

The island was originally intended for the burial of "strangers." After the Civil War, those considered "strangers" in New York City included African Americans, immigrants, and those who had died in the city's slums.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Today the cemetery is home to bodies that don't get claimed at city morgues. There are also bodies that had been donated to science — most of which ended up in the potter's field due to poor record-keeping — in addition to the remains of stillborn babies, homeless people, and those whose families couldn't afford a proper burial.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Sources: New York Times, Business Insider

Typical graves in a traditional cemetery are three-feet-by-seven-feet plots for a single body. However, in a mass graveyard, plots are a whopping 15 feet wide, eight feet deep, and intended for multiple bodies.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: New York Times

Many of the older "gravestones" are completely unmarked, but the newer ones hold ID numbers for each coffin. The ID numbers, and names that are known, are kept in an online database that helps people find the bodies of relatives and friends.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: The Hart Island Project

There are a large number of babies buried in potter's field. In 1995, for example, New Yorker MJ Adams couldn't afford a plot for her stillborn, so she let the city bury her child, thinking the body would be placed in a cemetery for children. The baby was buried on the island, but Adams wasn't informed of this by the hospital or the city for almost two decades because the child was listed under the wrong name in the city's records.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: NPR

Before 2015, families could not access the grounds because the city had security concerns. Following a class-action lawsuit, the city agreed to grant families monthly visits.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Getting there requires a special 15-minute ferry ride. The island is off-limits to all but staff, approved family members, and prisoners on work detail.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Families must be escorted by correctional officers and are not allowed to bring phones or any other photography aid. There's also a second ferry for the general public that travels to the island once a month, but it doesn't give access to the grave sites.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: NPR

Families who have relatives buried in New York's potter's field are still fighting to make the island a public park, but officials are resisting. For now, visitations are still held monthly, and with heavy restrictions.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: Reuters

These days, Rikers Island inmates visit the island most often. They are paid about $0.50 an hour to bury pine coffins in the field. When he was an inmate, Vincent Mingalone (now a funeral florist) says he typically helped bury up to 24 unclaimed bodies a week as part of a team of 20 prisoners called the "Hart Island Crew."

coronavirus covid 19 corrections prisoners ferry hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx april 8 2020 2020 04 09T164154Z_806753687_RC241G9BADEZ_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 corrections prisoners ferry hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx april 8 2020 2020 04 09T164154Z_806753687_RC241G9BADEZ_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

Sources: New York Times, Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project via Vimeo

A medical examiner's truck with bodies would board the ferry along with a Corrections vehicle. Inmates wrote the names of the deceased on the side of coffins with a wax crayon. Bodies get stacked three high, raked with sand, and covered with plywood.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches inmates burying unclaimed bodies wooden caskets hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx april 9 2020 04 09T164235Z_1389564795_RC241G91KIPT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches inmates burying unclaimed bodies wooden caskets hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx april 9 2020 04 09T164235Z_1389564795_RC241G91KIPT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

Source: Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project via Vimeo

Heavy machinery would then dump top soil on the burial site to cover the mass grave.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york bronx april 6 2020 2020 04 06T200258Z_1216444879_HP1EG461JOY5E_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york bronx april 6 2020 2020 04 06T200258Z_1216444879_HP1EG461JOY5E_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG

Source: Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project via Vimeo

"We always wondered: Did this person serve me coffee? Was this person a janitor in a building? What did this person do in life that they ultimately wound up here alone?" Mingalone said. "We did the best we could with dignity and we handled the bodies carefully."

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Source: Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project via Vimeo

In early April, as the coronavirus pandemic worked toward its peak in NYC, the city dug a roughly 200-foot-long trench on the island.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164203Z_1653016799_RC241G9P3V2L_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164203Z_1653016799_RC241G9P3V2L_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

Source: Business Insider

Two of the trenches had appeared by April 8. The scene did "not look normal," according to a New York-licensed funeral director known to Business Insider, but who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york city bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164148Z_1096290949_RC241G9TTBVT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york city bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164148Z_1096290949_RC241G9TTBVT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

Source: Business Insider

The trenches appeared after the city deployed large emergency mortuary tents and dozens of refrigerated trucks — room for about 3,600 additional bodies, up from 900 prior to the pandemic.

coronavirus covid 19 refrigerated semi trailer trucks temporary morgues randalls island park nyc new york city bronx april 9 2020 04 09T234655Z_1_LYNXNPEG382I5_RTROPTP_4_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 refrigerated semi trailer trucks temporary morgues randalls island park nyc new york city bronx april 9 2020 04 09T234655Z_1_LYNXNPEG382I5_RTROPTP_4_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG

Source: Business Insider

The city told Business Insider on April 6 that it had adequate space in its temporary morgue expansion. But the next day, the medical examiner changed its policy to inter unclaimed bodies after just six days instead of what is typically a month. Later that week, facing pushback from funeral directors struggling to handle the volume of bodies, the city increased storage to 14 days.

coronavirus covid 19 white marker crumbling building hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york bronx april 7 2020 2020 04 07T194842Z_1562988995_HP1EG471J156D_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 white marker crumbling building hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york bronx april 7 2020 2020 04 07T194842Z_1562988995_HP1EG471J156D_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG

Source: Business Insider

Around 40 bodies are claimed and returned to their families each year. But if hundreds more are buried on Hart Island in the coming months and disinterment policies aren't streamlined, the unnamed funeral director said it could "take years to get bodies off of Hart Island."

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
New York's potter's field, cemetery, death

Mike Segar/Reuters

Sources: Reuters, Business Insider

This story was originally published on June 29, 2016. It has been updated with new information and images.

Read the original article on Business Insider