People will be able to visit Hart Island, the city’s only public burial ground, starting on May 15 after more than a year of paused visitation service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials announced Wednesday.
Visits will take place twice a day at 9 a.m. and noon, and only 10 visitors will be allowed on each trip. The limited capacity is to allow for social distancing and other COVID-19 safety protocols, according to Department of Correction officials.
For now, visits will be limited to individuals with close ties to those buried on the island. Prior to the pause, gravesite visits, as well as tours for the public to a designated viewing area, were allowed.
Elected city officials and community leaders raised questions about the status of the island at a City Council hearing on the future of the island.
“I have to tell you that this has been a very emotional and painful hearing for me, as I'm sure it is for many of you, as we talk about the remains of our deceased and loved ones and how they’re handled,” Councilman Mark Gjonaj, whose district in the Bronx includes Hart Island and nearby City Island, said at the hearing on Wednesday.
In 2020, 2,334 adults were buried on Hart Island, up from 846 in 2019, according to an analysis by Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism and NY1’s editorial partner The City.
Despite this increase in burials, concerns over denied applications were brought up during the hearing.
Out of the 3,459 applications that were processed in 2020, 2,949 of them were deemed ineligible, in many cases because of missing paperwork, according to Natasha Godby, deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration.
Proof of income must be provided on Hart Island applications to meet the state’s requirement that burials be reserved for those facing financial hardship.
“It’s disturbing and heartbreaking to me to find that they were denied which I would imagine through no fault of their own were not able to get the documents that were needed,” Gjonaj said.
Godby pointed out that the threshold to meet the state requirement serves as a factor in the number of unapproved applications.
“The reason for the ineligibility is because the program is geared towards indigent descendants, indigent legally responsible relatives. So the bar for the program, you know, is quite high only because the state’s guidelines of its public assistance program,” she said.
She also emphasized that with the assistance of FEMA funding, the city is now able to offer more reimbursements for burial costs.
“We are reaching out to all of the applicants, even those who were approved by HRA to receive a benefit, to also receive a letter from us encouraging them to also go and seek the FEMA benefits so they can also too get reimbursement,” Godby said.
Visitors will embark from the Department of Transportation-operated dock on City Island in the Bronx. Reservations can be made online through the DOC website.