My story “Dead Time on Hart Island,” which has just been published in Space & Time Magazine, is not based on any real events. But it is based on a real place.
Hart Island, for those who may be unfamiliar with it, is the “Potter’s Field” of New York City. It’s the place where the poor, the forgotten, and the misplaced have been buried since the late 19th century. For years, the island was under the administration of the Department of Corrections and the coffins placed in mass graves dug and filled in by inmates.
For most of that time, the family and friends of those who were buried on Hart Island were forbidden to visit by the Department of Corrections. Until a photographer named Melinda Hunt, who first visited the island in 1991 to record “a hidden American landscape,” made it her mission to obtain the records of those buried there (many of which were destroyed by a fire in 1977) and to enable their friends and relatives to visit.
Using volunteer attorneys and the Freedom of Information Act, the Hart island Project eventually loosened the secrecy around the island. On the Hart Island Project website, you can now search out the stories of many of the AIDS victims buried there, and add any information you may have. You can also search a database of records beginning with 1980 to find out if anyone you know was interred there. The island also became much more accessible to the public, and in December 2019, a bill was signed that transferred control of Hart Island to the Parks Department.
For now, of course, ferry service to the island has been discontinued. The only people visiting Hart Island these days are the private contractors who have been hired to bury the dead — including some of the nearly 24,000 people in NYC who have died as a result of the coronavirus. And, perhaps, a few ghosts.