Hart Island Is The Site Of New York City’s Mass COVID-19 Burials

Stephanie KeithGetty Images

New York City‘s Hart Island, an uninhabited island in The Bronx, will be used as the final resting place for many of the the city’s COVID-19 victims, CNN reports. The island has also been used as a burial location for victims of previous epidemics and other disasters in the city’s history.

Hart Island lies just a few hundred yards off the eastern shore of The Bronx. About a mile long and about a third of a mile wide, the spit of land has served a variety of purposes over the years, such as a training ground for African American troops in the Civil War, a drug rehab center, and a boys reformatory school, among others. Abandoned, decaying buildings dot the island.

new york city's hart island
Featured image credit: Adam MossFlickr(CC BY-SA 2.0 )

One of the island’s grimmer purposes over the years has been to serve as a burial site, largely for the bodies of people whose remains otherwise had nowhere else to go. Orphans, criminals, the homeless, people whose bodies weren’t claimed by anyone; even random, dismembered body parts are interred throughout the island.

Over the years, Hart Island has been used as the final resting place of many such people whose lives were claimed by disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest disaster that will most likely see victims buried there.

“It is likely that people who have passed away from [coronavirus]…. will be buried on the Island in the coming days,” New York City Mayor Press Secretary Freddi Goldstein said Friday.

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As of this writing, the unclaimed bodies of some victims of the pandemic are already being moved to Hart Island to free up space in the city’s morgues and funeral homes for the bodies of COVID-19 victims that have been claimed by loved ones. Bodies that have been unclaimed for two weeks are going to be taken to Hart Island to be buried.

The conditions under which the dead are buried on the island may sound shocking to modern sensibilities. Mostly, the bodies are interred in unmarked, mass graves, laid to rest in trenches. Coffins, sometimes placed three deep, are marked with a serial number, as well as the person’s age and ethnicity, according to JSTOR.

aerial view of hart island
Featured image credit: BjoertvedtWikimedia Commons(CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Previous disasters that sent bodies to the mass graves on the island include the city’s long-running battle with tuberculosis — which ended less than a century ago — as well as a yellow fever epidemic and the AIDS epidemic of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Approximately 1 million people are buried on Hart Island and roughly a third are stillborn babies.