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Hart Island, The Largest Public Burial Ground In U.S., May Soon Be Controlled By NYC Parks Department

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Hart Island, a giant cemetery that many advocates consider neglected for years, is finally getting noticed by City Hall.

Elected officials have agreed to support a bill to transfer control of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks, CBS2's Natalie Duddridge reported Thursday.

Just a few miles east of the Bronx in Long Island Sound lies Hart Island, an area few people know about.

Hart Island
Hart Island (Photo: CBS2)

It's the largest public burial ground in the country, where more than 1 million New Yorkers have been laid to rest.

But it takes weeks or months to schedule a visit.

"I have a daughter buried on Hart Island," Elaine Joseph said. "It's extremely challenging. You have to plan this six months to a year in advance."

MOREHope Renewed For Unknown Thousands Among Hart Island's Dead

Joseph's daughter died days after she was born in 1978. She was buried on Hart Island in error.

Others are laid to rest there because they had no money or family, or were never identified.

Those who do want to visit have been working with local leaders to make Hart Island more accessible to see their loved ones.

"This is insane. This is crazy that a million people are buried on Hart Island, mostly poor and marginalized individuals and there is one Saturday a month to visit. This is crazy," City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said.

Johnson is among many elected officials who say it's time management of the island changes hands. He wants it operated by the Department of Parks instead of the Department of Correction.

DOC has run the island for more than a century. Prisoners from Rikers Island dig the graves and bury the dead, and armed guards escort visitors to the island.

Hart Island Erosion Unearths Skeletons
Hart Island, a massive burial ground near the Bronx, is eroding, unearthing human skeletons along the shoreline. (Photo: CBS2)

"We've been doing this this way for, as you all mentioned, over 150 years. It's big shift in city policy and we want to make sure we do it right," one official said.

MORE'Bones Beach:' Hart Island Erosion Unearths Human Skeletons

City council members have introduced three bills to transfer jurisdiction to the Department of Parks. But before they pass legislation, they're demanding the DOC improves the visitation policy. Then they can address restoring the shoreline, where bones have been eroding.

"NYC Parks will provide general maintenance on the island, perform upkeep on the grave sites and facilitate visitor services for family and friends for those buried on the island, as well as visits by the general public," another official said.

Eventually, elected officials say, the plan is to develop transportation to the island in the form of a public ferry.

Advocates hope the bills are a major step forward to a revitalized island, and that one day people like Elaine Joseph can visit her daughter on Hart Island freely.

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