Watch CBS News

Hart Island, Final Resting Place Of 1 Million, On Verge Of Becoming NYC Parks Property

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The country's largest public cemetery is a step closer to being owned by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation.

Hart Island is east of the Bronx in the Long Island Sound. CBS2 has previously reported on the troubles for the cemetery. Remains have washed ashore and the Department of Correction made visiting graves difficult for loved ones.

As reporter Jessica Moore found out Wednesday, the city council is trying to ease the pain of grief for thousands of families.

For Elaine Joseph, emotions are still raw 41 years later.

"My baby was born in January 1978 and had fell through the cracks. She died in the hospital," Joseph said.

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

Hart Island
Hart Island (Photo: CBS2)

Joseph's baby girl, Tomika, was buried on Hart Island in error. The sliver of land a few miles east of the Bronx is home to the country's largest public cemetery. Many of the 1 million people buried there had no money, no family, or were never identified.

For Joseph, the difficulty of visiting her baby's grave reopens the wound of losing her.

"Months in advance I'd sign up and hope I would get on the list and not know for sure until like a week or two before," Joseph said.

On Wednesday, the Transportation Committee passed two bills to make visiting Hart Island easier. One would give the Department of Parks and Recreation possession of Hart Island, shifting control away from the Department of Correction. Right now, armed guards escort visitors, as inmates from Rikers Island dig graves and bury bodies.

"You essentially go through prison processing. You turn over your cellphone, you sign a waiver, you can't take pictures. And you are escorted by a correction office to a grave site and it's terrible for a mother who's lost child to have to go through that," said Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project.

City officials said the Department of Correction has failed to look after the property that has been eroding for years. Last summer, CBS2 revealed that exposed bones from shoreline graves had washed up on nearby Bronx beaches.

"It's really a mark of shame that for generations in this city people who have been marginalized in life have, again, been marginalized in death," Councilman Mark Levin said.

The other bill would require the Department of Transportation to provide public transportation to and from the island, by way of ferry service.

The bill goes before the full city council for a vote Thursday afternoon. If it passes, the Department of Parks and Recreation is expected to assume control of Hart Island by July 2021.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.