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City Grants Access to Hart Island's Mass Grave Sites

Efforts to open the Bronx's Hart Island to the public took a step forward this week, as a court ruled that the island, a sites for mass burials since the mid-1800s, must grant access to family members of the deceased. Currently, family members can visit the island, but they are contained to a memorial site far from the cemetery, but the Times reports that a settlement was reached to allow family members to visit the grave sites once a month. The new visitation rules will start July 19. The lawsuit was brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the deceased and their families.

The city's Department of Correction controls Hart Island, and inmates are ferried to the land to bury the dead. The 100-acre piece of land has been used as a public burial ground since 1868, and the city currently buries approximately 1,500 people per year there. The tens of thousands of graves include the homeless, stillborn babies, victims of crimes or disease, and people whose families could not afford burials. All of the graves are unmarked, but the names and locations of the dead are kept in a database. The Hart Island Project is also working to identify the anonymous.

Advocates for opening the island argue that the Dept. of Correction is not equipped to deal with the bereaved, and they run the island more like a jail than a cemetery, banning visitors from bringing cell phones or cameras. This fall, City Council will likely hold a hearing on a bill that would transfer the island to the Parks Department. Advocates hope that the island could be turned into an environmentally-friendly burial ground that is completely open to the public. The Times says that Queens council member Elizabeth S. Crowley hopes the island could "become an attraction in much the same way Governors Island has turned into a popular destination."
· New York City to Allow Relatives to Visit Grave Sites at Potter's Field [NYT]
· All Hart Island coverage [Curbed]