The secrets of New York’s Island of the Dead

For over a century, Hart Island has been the final resting place of those who died alone and unknown and whose burial had to be organised by the city authorities using prison labour.

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But it’s emerged more recently that some children who die at birth are also being buried there without their mothers’ knowledge.

In a report on tonight’s Dateline on SBS ONE, two of those mothers tell their heartbreaking stories to video journalist Aaron Thomas.

“The nurse came around to get a heartbeat and there was no heartbeat,” Laurie Grant recalls of the stillbirth of her baby 21 years ago.

“At one point a nurse came in and said, what do you want to do about the burial… the city can bury the baby and you would be able to go visit,” Laurie says.

“You have to understand you are on meds and you’re in grief and you’re not exactly 100% yourself…  I have no recall of signing any papers.”

What followed was two decades of Laurie not knowing where her own baby was buried, until she happened to hear a radio report about Hart Island and starting making enquiries.

The island has been home to a hospital, prison and even a missile base, but is currently uninhabited except for the million people buried there since 1875.

“It was kind of a modern approach to organising all of the death that occurred in a big city,” says Melinda Hunt, an artist who started photographing the island and went on to become one of the main campaigners against its secrecy.

“Everybody’s identity is erased essentially and they are in this mass grave that is sort of like the New York City family tomb,” Melinda says.

At present the island is controlled by the New York Department of Correction, which severely restricts access, leading distraught parents to call it the ‘Prison of the Dead’.

But Melinda managed to get enough information to build an online database of burials and ultimately Laurie was able to find the details of where her baby had been laid to rest.

“For me, just the idea of knowing where the baby was was very important,” Laurie tells Aaron.

But so far her efforts to reach the island have been in vain, with a level of bureaucracy Melinda describes as like dealing with the ‘Soviet Politburo’.

“It shows a lack of respect for dignity, human dignity, and I feel that lack of respect,” Laurie says.

However, another mother, MJ Adams, has finally been permitted to visit the island, where her son Juan Carlos was buried after being stillborn 19 years ago.

“Now I have a solid image in my mind of where my baby is buried,” she tells Aaron after her emotional visit. “It’s a really lovely view of looking out across the Long Island Sound… so it gives me a peaceful image.”

Melinda and the mothers are now campaigning to open the island to the public, in the hope that New York’s forgotten may at last have the chance to be properly remembered.

See the full story on tonight’s Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.