June 27, 2016 / 10:27 PM / in a year

New York allows rare glimpse of its potter's field cemetery

NEW YORK (Reuters) - On an island off the coast of The Bronx in Long Island Sound, unmarked stones rest atop mass graves showing where one plot ends and another begins. Each plot contains 150 bodies.

This is New York’s potter’s field, one of the largest cemeteries in the United States where the unclaimed dead, the unknown and the very poor have been laid to rest for more than a century.

Accessible only by boat, about 1 million people have been interred on Hart Island. Another 1,000 coffins are buried there each year, said Carleen McLaughlin, director of legislative affairs for New York City’s Department of Corrections, which oversees the cemetery. According to the agency’s website, the city purchased the island in 1868.

“Unfortunately, there are always people who fall off the radar,” Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan said on Monday.

“You have to have some place to inter them, so that’s what happens” at Hart Island, he said.

The island has been the site of a prison, a reformatory, a workhouse and a Nike Missile base, among other things, Ultan said.

A headstone stands in a visitor area on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

During June the city provided a rare opportunity to film much of the public burial ground.

Today, the task of burying bodies at the 131-acre (53-hectare) potter’s field has fallen to prisoners who are ferried back and forth.

Slideshow (15 Images)

“The prisoners look upon this as good duty,” Ultan said, adding, “They’re out in the fresh air, they’re getting exercise and they’re away from the prison.”

Since settling a class-action lawsuit, the Department of Corrections allows people to visit burial sites on the island. Visitors were previously confined to a small area on a corner of the island.

Many older markers are bare, but newer ones carry numbers that coincide with an identification number on each coffin. The ID number, and name if known, are put into an online database that helps people find deceased relatives and friends.

Some 40 bodies a year are identified and returned to families.

Advocates for the families of those buried on the island have pushed for the space to be taken over by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Ultan said that so far, parks and recreation has resisted the idea.

Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Toni Reinhold

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