What NYC Mourners Found at Paupers' Graves

After years of fighting, loved ones go to Hart Island
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 20, 2015 5:07 PM CDT
This Sept. 21, 2010 picture provided by The Hart Island Project shows a trench for adult mass burials on New York's Hart Island.   (AP Photo/The Hart Island Project, Melinda Hunt)
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(Newser) – A few dozen mourners made history yesterday by riding a ferry to Hart Island in New York City. Their dead loved ones, buried in paupers' graves, had been legally inaccessible for years until a recent federal class-action lawsuit forced the city's Correction Department to let people visit, the New York Times reports. "I just want to see the site—I just want to be there," says obstetrician Laurie Grant, 61, whose daughter all but vanished after being born dead in 1993. "It’s part of everybody’s rites and rituals." She was among those who navigated the island's old asylum ruins, signs warning "Prison—Keep Off," and many white posts that number mass graves. There's also a tall monument engraved with the word "Peace" and a cross standing over the dead, Reuters reports.

The city has buried about a million people there since 1869, using it when loved ones lacked the funds for a regular burial. But officials also denied access, saying the site was unsafe. "Of course it’s unsafe," says filmmaker Melinda Hunt, who started the Hart Island Project. "This is open-pit burials [done by inmates], and they leave them open for months. The city just hasn’t re-examined its burial process since the Civil War." Family members fought the city for years, culminating in last December's lawsuit and yesterday's visit. "This is a momentous day," says lawyer Christopher Dunn, who filed the suit. At least one visitor agreed, telling NY1 that she "felt really bad that my mother wound up buried in a pauper grave, but now that I've experienced it—it is beautiful. It is as beautiful as any cemetery anywhere. Now I'm at peace."

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