A poignant article in The New York Times recently focused on "Finding Names for Hart Island's Forgotten."
Hart's Island, in Long Island Sound, has some 800,000 graves dating from 1869. There are no markers with names, but registers do exist. And thanks to one woman, families may once again be able to learn about relatives buried there over the years.
New York sculptor Melinda Hunt has devoted more than 10 years to assisting people to track down Hart Island's dead. Although the handwritten ledgers listing the names were generally inaccessible, Hunt obtained 50,000 records for every person buried there since 1985 through the Freedom of Information Act. She is hoping to use the thousands of pages to create an online database searchable by name or date of death.
Their bodies were put into tiny pine coffins and buried together in a large grave on a lonely, grassy place called Hart Island, part of the Bronx in Long Island Sound. According to the burial ledger, the babies Walburton, Mieses and Suazo, and dozens more infants, are in babies' trench "No. 51."
Hart Island is home to New York City's potter's field, the place where hundreds of thousands of the city's anonymous, indigent and forgotten have been laid to rest, tightly packed in pine coffins in common graves. Hart Island is managed and maintained by the city's Department of Correction, and inmates dig and fill the graves - three bodies deep for adults, five deep for babies - and mark each trench with a numbered concrete block. The island is off limits to the public, though family members who can prove their relatives are buried there are able to arrange visits.
Since she began exploring the island in 1991, hundreds of people have contacted her looking for information on missing relatives or children who died at birth.
Hart Island has been home, over the years, to a lunatic asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, a boys' reformatory and a prison. According to the newspaper story, some 1,500 are buried there annually; half are babies or young children.
Hart and photographer Joel Sternfeld organized a year-long exhibit in 1997, published a book of photographs in 1998 and produced a documentary. Hunt became known as the resource for information.
It is hard to obtain access to the island, and Hunt believes the public should be allowed annual visits. However, the Department of Correction believes there is a security issue as inmates work there. The burial records need to be preserved, she says, as thousands of ledger records were lost in a fire in the 1970s. She's looking for money to post the records online and to collect the stories.
Hunt believes that people have the right to know where their family members are buried in the city. She's trying to show an important hidden part of American culture that has been overlooked. "These are public records. They belong to the people of New York."
To read more of the story, click here.
To learn more about the Hart Island project, click here.