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Families of New York's unclaimed dead get more access to graves

By Laila Kearney

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Relatives of people buried at a New York City island that serves as the largest mass grave in the United States will have increased access to the cemetery under a modified lawsuit settlement announced on Tuesday.

Hart Island, a mile-long strip of land in the Long Island Sound that sits at the eastern edge of the Bronx borough, has housed the cemetery for people who cannot afford burials or for unclaimed bodies since the late 1800s. Around 1 million men, women and children have been interred at the island in unmarked graves.

Under the agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York City, which owns the graveyard, the number of monthly visitors allowed at the site will increase to 70 from 50. The city will also provide mourners with photographs of their grave site visits as part of a three-month pilot program under the settlement.

"Hart Island is sacred ground for family members of the generations of people who suffered the indignity of mass burial, and this increase in graveyard visitation is one more step towards honoring the memory of people buried there," NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case, said in a statement.

The city's Department of Correction, which operates the graveyard, said in a statement it had already sought to increase access to visitors.

"This expansion furthers that goal in a manner consistent with visitor security and safety concerns,” the department said.

The agreement is part of an amendment to a class action lawsuit settlement in 2015 between the NYCLU and the city that awarded relatives of those buried at Hart Island, and their guests, the right to visit individual graves.

Previously, city rules confined mourners to a small corner of the island.

The settlement also required the city to provide visitors with ferry service to the island, to maintain a database of the people buried there and to allow visitors to leave mementoes, including flowers and stuffed animals, at the grave sites.

Purchased in 1869 by city authorities, the 131-acre (53-hectare) Hart Island has at various times been a prison, a hospital and an asylum for the mentally ill.

Inmates monitored by correction officers now bury about 1,000 coffins at the island per year.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Frances Kerry and Andrew Hay)

 

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