Families of New York’s unclaimed dead get more access to graves

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By Laila Kearney

<span class="articleLocation”>Relatives of people buried at a New York City
island that serves as the largest mass grave in the United
States will have increased access to the cemetery under a
modified lawsuit settlement announced on Tuesday.

Hart Island, a mile-long strip of land in the Long Island
Sound that sits at the eastern edge of the Bronx borough, has
housed the cemetery for people who cannot afford burials or for
unclaimed bodies since the late 1800s. Some of the 1 million
people who have been interred at the island in unmarked graves
are children.

Under the agreement between the New York Civil Liberties
Union and New York City, which owns the graveyard, the number of
monthly visitors allowed at the site will increase to 70 from
50. The city will also provide mourners with photographs of
their grave site visits as part of a three-month pilot program
under the settlement.

“Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the
generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial,
and this increase in graveyard visitation is one more step
towards honoring the memory of people buried there,” NYCLU
Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the
case, said in a statement.

City officials were not immediately available for comment.

The agreement is part of an amendment to a class action
lawsuit settlement in 2015 between the NYCLU and the city that
awarded relatives of those buried at Hart Island, and their
guests, the right to visit individual graves.

Previously, city rules confined mourners to a small corner
of the island.

The settlement also required the city to provide visitors
with ferry service to the island, to maintain a database of the
people buried there and to allow visitors to leave mementoes,
including flowers and stuffed animals, at the grave sites.

Purchased in 1869 by city authorities, the 131-acre
(53-hectare) Hart Island has at various times been a prison, a
hospital and an asylum for the mentally ill.

The city’s Department of Corrections operates the cemetery,
where inmates now bury about 1,000 coffins per year.

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