The woman told me she’d had nightmares about the island for months. She was one of the visitors gathering at a ferry slip on City Island, a neighborhood lying on the northeastern bulge of the Bronx at the confluence of the Long Island Sound and the East River. Along with her partner, a silent heavyset man who wore black sweatclothes and shifted his weight, she had driven an hour and fifteen minutes from the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border that morning to visit the mass grave where her father is buried. She spoke to me as we waited for the ferry to take us across a narrow channel to Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field, where more than a million of New York City’s dead—bodies of the impoverished, the unidentified and the unclaimed—have been buried since 1869.
As the woman and I stood by the ferry slip on a spring day in 2017, she spoke about her visit: how her biological father, a World War II veteran, never should have been buried on Hart Island, and how she wanted to have him reinterred in a military cemetery. She was having trouble lining up all the necessary papers for his reburial. It would be her first visit to the island since finding out he had been buried there, and she spoke with an antic, tortured agitation. When another visitor mentioned there had once been an asylum on the island, she visibly shuddered. We were standing next to a tall barbed wire fence, marked as property of the New York City Department of Corrections. The burials on Hart Island are carried out by inmates serving out the end of terms for misdemeanors at Rikers, New York City’s notorious, scandal-plagued prison-island. During the week, guards supervise the heavy labor of inmates as rectangular pine coffins are piled in enormous trenches.
For decades, Hart Island was exceedingly difficult to visit—for a 2016 investigation, the New York Times suspended drone cameras above the island to take a look at the graves. A 2015 legal settlement mandates accommodation for visiting family, which has begun to put pressure on the old, tacit and almost fabular covenant that the city will bury the unclaimed dead but only at the price of making them near-unreachable. Since the island began hosting monthly graveside visits the demand has been enormous: the trips command long waiting lists that fill up months in advance. But the whole arrangement still has an ad hoc, provisional air: there are no restrooms for visitors, who must surrender their phones and remain in the company of corrections personnel the entire time. (In May 2018, Ydanis Rodriguez, a city council member representing Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, reintroduced a bill which would transfer the island from the jurisdiction of Corrections to the Parks Department and establish regular ferry service there, part of a vision to make it accessible to the wider public.)