NYC’s Hart Island: The past and future of the nation’s largest mass burial ground

It took 36 years for Elaine Joseph to reunite with her daughter.

Over the years, she searched fruitlessly for the baby girl she had given birth to in a New York City hospital in 1978 but who had lived for only five days.

The girl’s body had been taken by the city to what she was told was a public burial site that she’d be able to visit. But Joseph could never learn where it was located. It took decades before she learned that her baby girl’s body had been taken to Hart Island, a 100-acre slab of hook-shaped land off the Bronx that serves as the city’s potter’s field: the resting place for nearly a million indigent souls as well as stillborn babies.

Like most New Yorkers, Joseph had never heard of the place, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. And she quickly learned the island was largely closed off to anyone but a few — though that may change soon as city lawmakers consider whether to transfer jurisdiction of the island from jail officials to the Parks Department so that it can be opened to the wider public.