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

Mon Jun 27, 2016 8:05pm EDT
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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.

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.

"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."   Continued...

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