Hart Island is New York City’s “potters field” where one million of the poor, unclaimed, or unidentified dead are buried. Since 1868, bodies have been interred on the island making it the nation’s largest cemetery. Islands, however, are not great places for burial due to high water tables and erosion. Strong storms in the past few years have eaten away at the land and exposed remains, most of which were interred in mass graves or wooden coffins. Now, along the shores of Hart Island, visible from the Bronx, entire skeletons are falling from the soil onto the beach and are washing into the Long Island Sound. In early April 2018, 174 bones were removed after being exposed in eroded scarps.
The north shore of the island (now called “Bone Beach”) is particularly prone to erosion after it was pummeled during Hurricane Sandy in 2015. From AM NY (February 24, 2018):
A study by two forensic anthropologists at the city medical examiner’s office about nine months after Sandy found human remains in the eroded island cliff banks at numerous locations.
“Disarticulated bones were observed on the shore line and along the cliff bank,” the report stated, adding that two exposed burials were observed actively eroding. Parts of skulls and large bones were found as well, they reported.
The anthropologists said the bones appeared to have been buried more than 50 years ago. In cases of erosion, DOC officials said, the medical examiner is called and the remains collected so they can eventually be reinterred.
Hart Island has a very sad modern history. It was previously used as a Civil War soldiers camp and prison, a quarantine location for yellow fever victims, a women’s insane asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, a Cold War missile base, and a prison. The island is currently run by the Department of Corrections. Prisoners from Rikers Island still dig graves here. Trenches are reused after several decades as the remains decay. Many believe the island is haunted by the souls of the abandoned who were placed there but since access to the island is tightly controlled, not many have experienced the environment. The depressing history of the island was chronicled in this piece by the NY Times in 2016.
The burial ground is contentious as money appropriated to address the issue has not been used so far. Work is expected to begin in January 2020. People also want the ability to more easily visit the island to pay respects. Certainly, it is not respectful to have bodies washing out into the water but rising sea levels and more powerful storms signal trouble for islands as erosion or inundation looks to be inevitable.