Living Fight to Visit Island Filled With NYC's Dead

A look at NYC's Potter's Field
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 18, 2013 12:04 PM CST
Living Fight to Visit Island Filled With NYC's Dead
This Sept. 21, 2010 file photo provided by The Hart Island Project shows a trench for adult mass burials on New York's Hart Island.   (AP Photo/The Hart Island Project, Melinda Hunt, File)

It's been years since a journalist has been permitted to set foot on New York's Potter's Field, where nearly a million poor and unwanted people have been buried since 1869, one aside and atop the next, in plain caskets loaded into football field-length trenches. That is until Tuesday, when Corey Kilgannon of the New York Times was allowed ashore Hart Island. His report is as much about a potential loosening in that visitor policy as it is about the island itself. For six years, "closure visits" have been held, at first only for family members but later for any visitor, though they occur at a gazebo near the ferry landing; the graves are not in view. Then lawyers for the Correction Department, which handles the island's operations and was facing a lawsuit, gave the OK this month to eight women wanting access to their infants' grave sites.

Though their visit will be wrapped with stipulations, it may be tough, legally, to deny such requests going forward, even amid officials' fears: about the lack of public restrooms, the potentially unsafe conditions, and the fact that, Tuesday through Friday, the island is home to Rikers inmates, who double as gravediggers. Kilgannon shares the story of Elaine Joseph, one of the eight women who has fought long and hard for access. Her daughter, Tomika, died four days after birth in a 1978 snowstorm and was buried on Hart Island—without Joseph's permission, she says. She wants her child reburied in her own plot, but acknowledges it may be impossible to find her (1,000 infants are buried in each trench). At the very least, she wants to kneel at the grave. Click for Kilgannon's full piece. (Read more Hart Island stories.)

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