(NEW YORK) — New York City’s Hart Island — the burial site of more than 1 million people who were unclaimed, unidentified or unable to be buried elsewhere — is opening to visitors after decades of being shrouded in mystery and stigma.
For Elsie Soto, whose father died of AIDS complications in the ’90s, the public tours being held on the island signal a step in the right direction toward shedding light on the stories of marginalized groups in New York City.
Her father, Norberto, is one of potentially thousands of AIDS patients buried on Hart Island.
The island is not only the largest potter’s field in the U.S., but it is also believed to be the single largest AIDS burial site, according to the NYC Parks Department.
Soto says she was just 10 years old when her family had “no choice” but to bury Norberto on Hart Island.
“During that time, my mom already had six children. It wasn’t like we had money saved up, particularly for a funeral which can run — at that time — $5- or $6,000,” Soto told ABC News.
She continued, “We were reaching out to multiple funeral homes and, unfortunately, the second that they found out that my dad passed of HIV-AIDS complications, it was like: ‘We have to charge extra because of the embalming process or we have to wear extra protective gear.'”
Hart Island has been a public burial site since 1869, and families whose loved ones are confirmed to be buried there can schedule a visit to the grave with a Parks Department escort.
Many of those buried on Hart Island come from marginalized groups, according to Urban Park Ranger Kasha Pazdar, who will be leading the bimonthly tours.
It’s unclear exactly how many people who contracted AIDS are buried on the island due to a lack of records, according to Pazdar, but it is estimated by the city to be in the thousands.
The AIDS epidemic in particular disproportionately affected the already stigmatized LGBTQ community, as well as intravenous drug users, according to the CDC.
The island is also the grave site of indigent Civil War veterans, people who died from COVID-19, impoverished and unhoused individuals.
“You have a lot of individuals who are not being accepted, not being claimed by their families at their time of death,” Pazdar said.
Shame surrounding HIV-AIDS has long led to misinformation and inadequate treatment concerning the illnesses, according to the CDC.
Soto remembered the misinformation perforating her own understanding of her father’s illness when she was young: “I remember one time my dad gave me a hug, and it was during the summertime, and he was sweating. And my mom kind of pulled me to the side and wiped me down with alcohol swabs.”
In death, as in life, some people who were diagnosed with AIDS and buried on Hart Island faced discrimination.
In 1983, the New York State Funeral Directors Association urged its members not to embalm the bodies of those who died from AIDS-related causes, making it difficult for families to find a funeral home that would accept them for a private funeral.
The AIDS Discrimination Unit of the New York City Commission of Human Rights was established that same year to combat this inequity, according to an interview of unit officials in the book “AIDS: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism.”
“We sued a number of funeral homes for discrimination, hoping to use it as an educational tool for the funeral industry, and indeed we wound up speaking to 200 funeral home directors about the issue,” commission official Katy Taylor said in the book.
However, not all people who contracted AIDS were refused service or sent to be buried on Hart Island. Across New York City, several institutions and individuals — such as those at Redden’s Funeral Home and St. Francis Xavier Church– provided services for AIDS patients while others refused.
Stigma against AIDS patients can also be seen in the way that some of those who died from AIDS-related illnesses were buried on Hart Island.
On the southernmost tip of New York City’s Hart Island is the grave site for dozens of unidentified AIDS patients who were buried in individual graves far from the other burials in the 1980s, at the height of panic over the illness.
They were buried deeper than the others, 14 feet deep, “which from what we understand is the deepest that the backhoe — the machinery that was being used — it was the deepest that the backhoe could dig,” said Pazdar.
The choice to bury the individuals farther away from the other bodies “was out of a fear of contagion, which is not founded in any scientific basis and was not founded in scientific basis at the time,” Pazdar added.
NYC Parks announced the start of free public tours of Hart Island in part to address these historical stigmas and share the history of those who are buried there.
“The problem with Hart Island is that it wasn’t accessible for so long,” said Melinda Hunt, who runs the Hart Island Project. The yearslong project documents and raises awareness about this history. “It wasn’t really functioning as a cemetery. It’s functioning as a place where people disappeared.”
She continued, “It really made people feel as though they were being discarded.”
Hunt has played a major role in advocating with city officials for expanded access to the cemetery.
As visitors hop on the ferry and land on the shores of the island in the limited tours available, she hopes they feel more connected to the communities that those buried there come from.
“The purpose of cemeteries is to mend the holes in the social fabric,” she said.
Norberto was a proud Puerto Rican man, according to Soto, who taught his daughter how to stand up for what is right.
One of the final letters he sent young Soto inspired her to go into public health advocacy, where she now says she fights to ensure “that the communities like ours, Latin communities, Black communities are not ignored.”
She continued, “Just because he’s buried on Hart Island, just because he died of HIV-AIDS complications, does not make him any less of a father, does not make me love him any less.”
The tours will not yet visit the southern part of the island due to the demolition of several structures that has limited their ability to do so, according to Pazdar.
However, NYC Parks told ABC News it has proposed a master plan for the island to potentially build a memorial space, a visitors center, and develop new visitation practices.
“When we are able to confront and look at our past and take a look at Hart Island, we can celebrate all of those who are buried there and the lives that they lived,” Pazdar said.
They encourage visitors “to look to the future and see what Hart Island can become because it’s going to be up to all of us, up to all of the city to decide what happens to Hart Island next.”
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