THE BRONX — The city has agreed to allow families whose loved ones are buried on Hart Island, the city's potters field, to visit the deceased once a month, according to a settlement reached on Wednesday between the NYCLU and the city.
A judge still has to approve the settlement, but families will start regular visitation to the island on Sunday July 19, and can take as many family members or friends as they want with them.
Hart Island — the splotch of green just beyond City Island in the Bronx — has belonged to New York City since 1868 and has been the site of mass burials since 1875, according to the Hart Island Project, an organization that has been cataloging and mapping names and information about people buried there.
As many as a million people are buried there, the Department of Corrections estimates, though a fire in the late 1970's destroyed many of the city’s records.
Since 1980, the island has been the final resting spot of more than 63,484 bodies, including unclaimed homeless people, stillborn babies, victims of crimes and disease or people whose families could not afford burials, according to a database compiled by Melinda Hunt, the founder of the Hart Island Project who first began researching the island in 1991.
For years while media and researchers could schedule visits to the island, mothers, brothers and children of those buried there struggled to gain access.
The city eventually permitted special, one-time visits and only gave access to the family member and one other person, Hunt said, who worked closely with a group of mothers whose stillborn babies buried there.
There are at least 28,343 stillborns buried on the island, according to her database.
“These women had to choose among their significant others,” Hunt said. “Do you take to your sibling, your husband, your priest? Now that’s over.”
Under previous protocol the DOC, said it tried to arrange once a month visits on Thursdays and often didn’t allow people to go to the actual sites where their loved ones were buried.
In December of 2014, the NYCLU filed a class-action suit that named three women whose relatives were buried on the island: Rosaria Cortes Lusero, 59, whose stillborn baby was buried on the island, Lucero's daughter Marie Cruz Garcia, 27, and Michelle Caner, 35, whose father is interred there.
Garcia, said she and her mother have been battling visitation rights for decades. Her sister was buried on the island in 1995, according to the NYCLU.
“For 20 years my mother and I have waited to visit the grave of my baby sister,” Garcia said. “It will be very difficult, but finally being able to visit her grave will allow us to mourn the sister and daughter we never got to know.”
The city has agreed to provide ferry service to the island and will permit family members to leave mementos on their loved ones grave sites, the settlement said.
"We want to enable access to the cemetery on Hart Island in a compassionate and safe manner,” said Corrections Commissioner Ponte said. “[We] pledge to work closely with the NYCLU in order to make the compassionate access it envisions a reality.”
While this is a big victory for advocates there’s still much to be done, Hunt said.
The Hart Island Project is working to develop a mobile app so that people can search the exact location of where their loved one is buried instead of relying on the DOC to guide them there.
They’re also advocating to transfer the island to the jurisdiction of the Parks Department and to convert it into an environmentally friendly burial site that would be open to the public.