Hart Island: The Mass Graves Where the Unclaimed Dead of New York Rest

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In a shocking article yesterday, The New York Times revealed the fate of some of the unclaimed dead that end up on Hart Island off the Bronx. In a perfect setting for a horror movie, these graves sit in the company of a former insane asylum and a tuberculosis clinic. But the bodies that end up buried in mass graves are not only poor people with no family or John Does, but also bodies accidentally discarded after being donated for medical research, without the family’s knowledge.

The article tells how in the 1800s bodies from black slaves were used for anatomical research and dissection, either donated by slave owners or just poached from burial grounds. But when a lack of corpses resulted in white, “respectable” bodies being stolen from morgues for the purpose of medical studies, it caused riots. The solution was to legalize the donating of unclaimed bodies to the schools, and these later ended up at Hart Island. Burials started in 1869 and the island is now the last resting place for more than a million people.

If you’re wondering how this could be possible, it’s important to keep in mind that the burial and cremation laws are different for every state. A casket is not necessary to be buried in the state of New York, even though most prefer one, and it is often a big expense that can range from $500 to over $20,000, depending on design and material. On top of that come fees for handling the body, embalming if you prefer, clothes to be buried in, refrigeration, and more. The total cost for being buried in New York can be around $10,000, so it’s not hard to imagine that many don’t come close to affording it.

The window a family has to claim a body can be as short as 48 hours after death, after that the body is available to any medical schools, or mortuary classes. New York is unique in that these unclaimed bodies are later taken to the potter’s field on the uninhabited and remote Hart Island by a group of inmates.

According to the article, private donations of bodies to medical research have increased so much that bodies from city morgues are rarely claimed for this purpose anymore. And even these bodies, that can be extremely wealthy or have a big, loving family, can accidentally end up on Hart Island in cases of miscommunication. It’s a disturbing concept, but one that has now grasped the public’s attention in light of the New York Times piece.

Emma Von Zeipel
Emma Von Zeipel is a staff writer at Law Street Media. She is originally from one of the islands of Stockholm, Sweden. After working for Democratic Voice of Burma in Thailand, she ended up in New York City. She has a BA in journalism from Stockholm University and is passionate about human rights, good books, horses, and European chocolate. Contact Emma at



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