Family Members Visit the Dead at Potter’s Field for the First Time

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Hart Island
Photo: New York Daily News Archive/1950/Daily News, L.P. (New York)

About a million people have been buried in unmarked graves on Hart Island in the Long Island Sound since 1869. In the century and a half since the burials began, visits from mourners have been rare. Potter’s Field, once home to a prison camp for Confederate soldiers, was closed to the public for safety reasons. The closest relatives could get was a gazebo built by the Corrections Department near where the ferry docks once a month, where it is impossible to see any of the graves. The only visitors, for the most part, were inmates from Rikers Island, who are ferried to the island on mornings to bury the unknown and unclaimed in the largest mass grave in the United States.

After a federal class-action lawsuit, however, family members of the dead are finally allowed to visit the island once a month. The first group of five families went on Sunday. Dr. Laurie Grant visited the grave of her stillborn baby, buried in 1993, and Rosaria Cortes Lusero visited her baby, who died in 1995. Rosalee Grable went to go lay flowers on her mother’s grave; she had been buried there because their family hadn’t had enough money for a burial. “I felt really bad that my mother wound up buried in a pauper grave, but now that I’ve experienced it — it is beautiful,” she told NY1. “It is as beautiful as any cemetery anywhere. Now I’m at peace.”