De Blasio Signs Bill Making Hart Island A City Park

Rich Lamb
December 04, 2019 - 1:31 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed a bill making Hart Island, the largest public burial ground in the nation, a city park.

More than 1 million of those not claimed by family — the poor, the homeless, the indigent — are buried on the 131-acre island located off the Bronx, which has previously served as a Civil War internment camp, a psychiatric institution, and a Nike Missile launch site for the U.S. Military.

"They were loved by people in their lives and they loved others and if they ended up in a situation where their final resting place was Hart Island that is not a comment on who they were in the fiber of their being, it's a comment on the inequalities of our society," de Blasio said.

The mayor signed a package of bills Wednesday that will transfer control of Hart Island from the Department of Correction to the Parks Department, mandate the creation of a public travel plan for Hart Island, require a public hearing on burials and establish a Human Resources Administration office to support people in need of burial assistance.

“Many of our city’s parks have long-ago histories of having been the resting places of our ancestors,” said Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. “Today, they are ever-cherished, well used public spaces where memories are made. Like those, we are committed to doing our part, working with City Hall and sister agencies, to realize the future Hart Island. Together we will honor those at rest, continue access for their loved ones, while working to transforming into a welcoming public space.”

Right now, the process to visit someone there could not be any more impersonal, says Council Member Debbie Rose

"In order to pay your respects to a loved one you have to schedule an appointment," Rose said. "You have to schedule your grieving according to the Department of Correction's timetable."

Hart Island in New York
(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Her bill requires the Department of Social Services, though hearings, to come up with a more compassionate approach.

Elaine Joseph's daughter was interred on Hart Island in 1978.

"She was lost in the system, she was lost through a hospital, she was lost through the ME's office, and she's now lost at Hart Island because we don't exactly know where she's buried, but I got there frequently," Joseph said. "I want to tell my daughter and all of her million friends that are there with her that they now have dignity."

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said this is a major step forward in the fight to make Hart Island "a dignified resting place for the more than one million souls who are buried there."

"How we remember people who came before us says a lot about our moral compass and about who we are as a city," Johnson said. "We will keep working to improve our city’s public burial process."