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NYC's Hart Island and coronavirus: 'A meaningful place in a dark time'

Drone pictures show bodies being buried on New York's Hart Island. By Ray Sanchez, CNN

(CNN) -- One indignity of the coronavirus pandemic is dying alone.

The victims wheeled from packed morgues into refrigerated trailers outside hospitals. No mourning at houses of worship, funeral homes or cemeteries.

When New York City officials announced this week that a potter's field for the poor and unclaimed on Hart Island will be used for virus victims, the longtime stigma associated with the jail system's public burial ground became one more worry.

"A Hart Island burial is not disrespectful," said Melinda Hunt, who founded the nonprofit Hart Island Project to support families of the buried and push for public access to the site. "It's a very sacred place."

Mayor Bill de Blasio has responded to concern over possible mass burials from the pandemic. Lines of caskets could be seen being covered with dirt in long trenches on the island earlier this month in drone video posted by the nonprofit.

"There will be no mass burials on Hart Island," de Blasio tweeted Friday. "Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity."

Hunt responded to the mayor via Twitter the next day, saying Hart Island burials are no longer handled by inmates at Rikers Island.

"There is not enough testing to know how many people buried died of complications from COVID-19," she wrote. "You need to visit Hart Island and honor the buried. Many families have no choice."

Easter would be the perfect time for a visit by the mayor, she said in an interview.

The city had nearly 100,000 coronavirus cases and more than 5,742 deaths as of Saturday evening, according to its website. Nearly 30,000 people were hospitalized.

"Hart Island is the most democratic place," Hunt said. "Everybody is handled the same. There is a beauty to that. It's very Walt Whitman in a funny way."

'Largest natural burial ground in the United States'

The city purchased Hart Island in 1868 and turned it into a public cemetery.

Over 150 years, the island served burial ground for victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

"I started going there in 1991 during the AIDS epidemic," Hunt said. "So many of my friends in the arts community just disappeared and we never knew what happened to their bodies. ... It took a long time before we flew a drone and found those grave sites."

The island also was a prison workhouse, a Union solider training site and prisoner of war camp for Confederate fighters. It once harbored yellow fever and tuberculosis victims.

"It's natural when something is locked away in the prison system to imagine the worst," Hunt said.

More than a million New Yorkers have been laid to rest on the small strip of land off the coast of the Bronx -- soldiers, the poor and the unclaimed, the homeless and stillborn babies.

"The thing the politicians should be doing is talking about Hart Island differently because it's the largest natural burial ground in the United States," Hunt said. "It's a really beautiful location, and it's already transferred to Parks. They will take over in July 2021 and turn it into a beautiful place."

The city Department of Correction has long managed the island, paying Rikers inmates to handle the public burials as part of work detail. Last year, the city decided to turn over control to Parks though DOC still manages the property and interments.

The city has said DOC is now using contract workers for burials.

"There's a lot of wildlife out there," Hunt said. "It's a bird sanctuary. It's a very, very peaceful location. And the fact there aren't individual monuments is part of the spiritual power of the place, knowing that over a million New Yorkers have been buried there."

Island is a 'hidden gem,' former inmate says

Vincent Mingalone, 47, worked the burial detail until his release from Rikers in February. He did six months; five of them on burial duty. It paid $40 a week for one day of work -- Thursdays. It was one of the lowest paying jobs -- car wash and bakery work earned inmates up to $85 a week.

The day of his fewest burials he did 11, the most was 22.

"We did it with dignity and respect," said Mingalone, a funeral florist working part-time at a pizza shop. "We were the only ones there for these people."

Mingalone worked in a dirt pit but moved up to truck duty, inscribing the names of the diseased on the box with a wax crayon and burial locations with a wood router. He would hand the box to three inmate who passed it along to three others in the pit.

"These were fellow New Yorkers, you know," he said of the dead. "Maybe he was a pizza man or served us coffee at a diner. Or he cleaned houses and offices. Not everybody was an unfortunate homeless person or a derelict or a drunk in the street."

After his release, Mingalone said he immediately looked up Hart island on Google. "I read so much," he said. "It's a hidden gem."

Mayor vows 'every measure of respect and dignity'

Freddi Goldstein, the mayor's press secretary, said about 25 people were buried on the island each week. Now there are 25 burials per day.

The city is transferring unclaimed bodies to the 101-acre island to make way for coronavirus victims whose bodies are claimed, according to Goldstein. New rules will require bodies to be taken to the island if they go unclaimed for two weeks.

"These are people who, for two weeks, we have not been able to find anyone who says, 'I know that person, I love that person, I will handle the burial,' " Goldstein said.

The mayor tweeted, "The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we're seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately. Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide."

The bodies arrive by ferry from City Island in the Bronx. They're in plain wooden coffins and stacked in trenches three high and two across. Rikers' inmates would shovel over the coffins with dirt to make unmarked mass graves. The private contractors will use forklifts and other heavy machinery.

"A decent burial does not involve prison inmates burying your loved one," Hunt said.

The burial system has evolved over 150 years.

"It goes all the way back to the Civil War, with the Union army having to bury huge numbers of soldiers on battlefields in the South," Hunt said. "They had to do this with ledgers and grid system such that they could come back later to disinter and rebury in national cemeteries."

'A meaningful place in a dark time'

Only people who have not been claimed by loved ones will be buried on the island, Goldstein said. As long as morgue officials make contact with a relative within 14 days, they will not be moved to Hart Island.

Loved ones have been able to request the exhumation and relocation of remains.

Hunt said city burial assistance covers $900 for a funeral not costing more than $1,700.

"You can't even get a cremation for $1,700," she said. "You can't get a funeral director."

Families must hire a funeral home to pick up the remains. There is no charge for disinterment.

"We need to do away with the shame and talk about it as a good place to be buried," Hunt said. "A lot of people are unemployed now. We want people to feel the city is doing right by them."

The burial grid system is "tried and tested," she said. Hart Island is "a meaningful place in a dark time."

"There's no real choice here," Hunt said. "This is where the majority of Covid-19 victims are going to be buried. It disproportionately affects the low income community who can't really isolate and avoid using the subways. By the same token those same people can't afford a funeral."

One day every New Yorker will know somebody interred on the little-known island, Hunt predicted.

"The idea that you've never heard of this place and you don't know anybody buried there, those days are over," she said.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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