New York City Councilman wants to turn 'Island of the Dead' into public park

HART ISLAND, the Bronx (WABC) -- A New York City Council member has revived legislation that would turn an island where a million people are buried into a park.

Hart Island is off the coast of the Bronx and has served as a burial ground for New York's poor and nameless for more than a century. It is maintained by the city's Department of Correction, and prisoners bury the dead. But now, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez wants to put the island under the jurisdiction of the parks department, which would maintain the island as a public park where people can access the grave sites.

Families could not visit loved ones until a 2015 lawsuit, and Elaine Joseph was one of the first to make the trip when public access was finally granted to family members. However she recalls her experience there as more heartless than peaceful.

"You think you're going to a cemetery," she said. "You've been to cemetery before. It's different. It's surreal experience. It's not reality."

Joseph's infant daughter is buried on Hart Island.

"I don't need a correction officer to escort me to the grave of my infant baby," she said. "I would like to be able to walk there. I would like to be able to go as often as I go to my parents' grave site, where I need no permission and I need no one holding their hand on their weapon."

Rodriguez wants to rid visitors of that unnerving feeling, and he also wants to establish a regular ferry service to the island.

"We don't need a jail for dead," he said. "We need a cemetery that gives them dignity and respect."

With more than one million souls buried on the island at the western end of Long Island Sound, it's the nation's largest public cemetery and final resting place for countless undocumented immigrants and those whose families didn't have money for other arrangements.

"Hart Island is a place that has not only history, but an opportunity for us to make right on our promise as a sanctuary city and allow for everyone to access their loved ones," Rodriguez said.

The City Council will soon consider two bills that would transfer jurisdiction and provide the additional ferry service.

(Information from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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