As many as one-tenth of the people who have died from the coronavirus in New York City may go unclaimed and be buried on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field, according to an analysis of city data.
The analysis, a collaboration between Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism and a nonprofit news website, The City, found a huge increase in burials on Hart Island in 2020 — 2,334 adults were buried there, up from 846 in 2019. The reporters, citing public health officials, attributed the increase largely to the pandemic: people killed by the coronavirus or by other medical issues that went unaddressed because of the crisis.
(There was a similar, though smaller, surge in Hart Island burials in the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.)
In addition to the burials, the city medical examiner’s office is storing the unclaimed bodies of more than 700 people who died at the height of the pandemic, according to Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for the office. She said the exact causes of death for many of them may not be clear.
If those bodies are buried on Hart Island as well, and all are counted as pandemic deaths, the total would exceed 3,000 — about one-tenth of the 30,793 coronavirus deaths recorded in the city as of Wednesday, according to a New York Times database.
About a million people are estimated to have been buried on Hart Island since it became a public cemetery in the 19th century, The City said.
City officials recently considered ending burials on the island and shipping bodies out of the city instead. But during the pandemic, when funeral homes were overwhelmed, Hart Island became a last resort, preferable to having bodies languish indefinitely in refrigerated trucks.
Melinda Hunt, the founder of the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit group that has pushed for greater awareness and access to the island, said in January that she hoped that the exigencies of the pandemic would help lawmakers and the public regard burials on Hart Island differently.
“It’s not some Dickensian thing,” Ms. Hunt said. “It’s an orderly and secure system of burials that works, especially when you have deaths on the scale of an epidemic.”