Families will be able to visit graves of loved ones at NYC’s potter’s field under settlement

Family members of people buried at the city’s potter’s field of Hart Island will be allowed to visit their graves under a landmark settlement of a class-action lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Previously, family members visiting the island were only allowed to remain at a gazebo built for reflection that provided no view of the gravesite and no chance to lay mementos or flowers for loved ones. Some family members also were able to gain access to gravesites after having their lawyer write the city. 

The settlement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and the city radically alters that policy by allowing family members and their guests the opportunity to visit gravesites one weekend a month over the next year. The city has also agreed to assess whether more visitations are possible.

NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said in a statement that the settlement “should help bring closure” to family members who “suffered the indignity of mass burial and then suffered … being forsaken by a city policy that barred family and friends from visiting.”

The 100-acre Hart Island, sitting off the coast of the Bronx, has been the city’s potter’s field since 1869. It’s the final resting place of nearly a million indigent people and stillborn babies. The Department of Correction operates the island, tasking detainees with working as gravediggers.

Melinda Hunt, the director of the Hart Island Project that has sought to open up the potter’s field to the public, called the settlement a major change.  

“It means that anyone who has someone buried can go there and take whomever they want with them. That’s a big thing,” she said. “It’s very important to visit the gravesite and be able to say goodbye.”

She said there remain challenges to visitation: Family members will need to be accompanied by corrections officials and won’t be able to take electronic devices, for instance.  

She said the DOC can also question a person’s relationship to the dead individual and can determine whether it’s safe to visit or not, given that it’s an active burial site. Nevertheless, the settlement makes visitation for family members “way better.”

“Now they can gather at a grave,” she said.