Melinda Hunt on Hart Island, using a GPS tracker to find a gravesite.
Melinda Hunt on Hart Island, using a GPS tracker to find a gravesite.

The Secret Cemetery

More than a million were buried on Hart Island, but families couldn’t visit. Melinda Hunt ’81 changed that.

By Amanda Waldroupe ’07 | October 23, 2023

Elsie Soto was ten years old when her father, Norberto, died in 1993 from AIDS. “Not being at his bedside, not saying goodbye, not seeing the coffin go in the ground,” Elsie said, made it difficult to reconcile her father’s death. Her grief and shock were compounded by the stigma surrounding AIDS—all the private funeral homes her mother contacted refused to perform the service.

Lizzette Rivera’s mother, Zaida, died from AIDS-related complications when Lizzette was 15 years old, in 1984. Like Elsie, she never got to say goodbye, and there was no funeral. Growing up, Lizzette felt as if she carried her mother with her everywhere, “inside of me, inside my heart.”

Both women knew their parents were buried on Hart Island—the location of New York City’s public cemetery. But they didn’t know where on the island their parents were buried. And, until just a few years ago, they were prohibited from going to the island.

That would likely still be the case were it not for Melinda Hunt ’81. Without Melinda, Elsie and Lizzette—and many others with family buried on Hart Island— would never have been able to visit, let alone know with certainty that their parents were buried there. Melinda is credited as the driving force that completely upended decades of the secrecy and neglect that Hart Island, those interred there, and their families endured.

Through art, storytelling, scholarship, a public database, and political advocacy, Melinda reunited New Yorkers with their public cemetery.

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Melinda first visited Hart Island in 1991. The island, in the northeasternmost corner of New York City, is the largest municipal cemetery in the United States (it is also the country’s largest green cemetery). It is the final resting place for the city’s indigent—people who are unclaimed by family. People whose families cannot afford, or choose not to have, a private burial or cremation are also buried there. While any New Yorker can be buried on Hart Island, most of the interred are poor and disadvantaged.

Among them are hundreds of people who died from AIDS during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. During that time, with fear and homophobia rampant, private funeral homes refused to provide private burials for AIDS victims (in 1983, the New York State Funeral Directors Association even encouraged members to not embalm people who had died from the virus). Hart Island became the only place where they could be buried.

For much of its history, Hart Island was shrouded in stigma and secrecy, the island sometimes called the “Island of Lost Souls,” the cemetery a “potter’s field” or “pauper’s cemetery.” Buildings— including an insane asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, and a boys’ reformatory (see timeline)—were derelict, with broken windows, collapsed roofs, trees and brush growing out of crumbling foundations. The city’s Department of Correction operated the island, and burials were carried out by inmates of New York City’s infamous jail complex on Rikers Island.

An artist and photographer, Melinda had been documenting the AIDS crisis. She was interested in publishing a photography book documenting Hart Island as a place that had been unchanged for over a century. She wanted to pay homage to the photographs that journalist and social activist Jacob Riis had taken for his book How the Other Half Lives, and she invited photographer Joel Sternfeld, renowned for his large-format photographs  chronicling roadside American culture, to accompany her. (At that time, academics and members of the press were allowed to visit Hart Island; Melinda and Sternfeld were affiliated with universities.)

They visited the island for the first time in 1991. Melinda expected “a very dark place.” She discovered the opposite. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “I felt it was a very important and meaningful and beautiful landscape that was misunderstood.”

To Melinda, cemeteries are repositories of history, stories, and memory that help people not only grieve the passing of a loved one, but connect to their past. From that perspective, Hart Island’s cemetery was dysfunctional. It was closed to the public. Even people with family buried there could not visit, effectively making it impossible for them to experience a common rite: grieving and coming to terms with the finality of death at the gravesite of our loved one, while also remembering that person.

“You can’t have a functional cemetery if the public doesn’t have access,” Melinda said. “The purpose of a cemetery is to reconcile death.” Drawn to the island’s beauty and the injustice of the deceased becoming anonymous and forgotten, Melinda resolved to “reconnect the city to its cemetery.”

An artist trained in painting, installation art, and photography, Melinda was guided by a question much like an artist’s statement: “How do you make an invisible place visible?”

“My feeling is that you can only destigmatize a place if you show it impacts a broad spectrum of the population,” Melinda said. “It’s our community. It’s our cemetery—not a pauper’s cemetery.”

Indeed, since burials began in 1869, over 1 million people have been laid to rest on Hart Island, and, in many ways, they tell the story of New York City: Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War are buried on the island, as are women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, immigrants, crime victims, and those who died from disease during the 1918 flu pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The island is also the resting place of over 42,000 infants. “To that mother, that child is a person,” Melinda said.

“These are everyone’s babies. These are everyone’s stories,” she continued. “If you make it so that people can reconcile these stories and their experiences, these burials are seen as part of our community.”

In 1998, she and Sternfeld published Hart Island, a photography book documenting the island, the cemetery, buildings, and history. In 2006, Melinda produced the feature-length documentary film Hart Island: An American Cemetery.

In 2011, she founded the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit arts organization. Legal counsel advised her not to charter the nonprofit’s mission as educational or as a historical society; each entailed compliance with various state regulations.  An arts organization, she learned, would have broader latitude. “Art isn’t as regulated,” she said.

Melinda is as unassuming as Hart Island. Wearing black glasses, she could be mistaken for a professor or librarian. When she visits Hart Island, she is dressed for the elements —during one trip on a dreary, rainy day in early December, she wore full rain gear and hiking boots, as if about to go on a hike.

She is an animated speaker, with a quick and infectious laugh, especially when speaking about the absurdity of New York City bureaucracy. She is tenacious and dogged, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hart Island, from its history to minutiae of New York City administrative code. 

She credits her success to skills she learned and began practicing at Reed. Yet her intellectualism, penchant for civic engagement, and artistic practice started at an early age. She started painting as a small child and “was lucky as a kid to be taken seriously” and considered “talented” as an artist, Melinda said.

Her relationship with her great-aunt, Alice Riggs Hunt, who was a journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist in New York, was also formative. At the end of her life, she came to live near Melinda’s family in Alberta. “She was a fantastic storyteller,” Melinda remembered. Because of cataracts and arthritic hands, she could no longer read or type. Melinda soon realized, “I could get out of raking leaves and washing dishes if I was reading newspapers to Aunt Alice.”

As Melinda read the news, her aunt would stop her and say, “Oh, we have to write a letter to the President. Get a piece of paper, I’ll dictate.”

“And I’m eight years old,” Melinda recalled, laughing, “and I’m writing “Dear President Nixon…”

She came to Reed after studying studio art for two years at the Pacific Northwest College of Art (and graduated from both institutions, as part of a joint program the art department had with the Pacific Northwest College of Art). She was inspired to work at the intersection of art, civic engagement, and social justice, even though a successful artistic career was defined at the time as showing work in galleries and exhibitions.

Like many students, she was at first taken aback by Reed’s high expectations. She laughed as she recalled feeling as if “I didn’t know anything.” Despite that, “the rigor was good” and Reed instilled the capacity of “believing in yourself and doing something original.” 

“You had to have a good idea and you had to defend it.” She honed the ability to “get into the library, do research based on primary documents”—and have the doggedness to get them—“and know what you’re talking about.”  “Reed prepared me for all the pushback” she encountered in her advocacy.

The first big battle came when she wanted copies of Hart Island’s burial ledgers. 

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 To understand Melinda’s advocacy of Hart Island, you have to understand a bit about New York City bureaucracy. It originally opened as a penal colony, and the city’s Department of Charities and Corrections, responsible for all social services and the city’s jails, originally managed the island. In 1896, that agency split into two. But the city code relating to Hart Island didn’t change, so the Department of Correction—the same agency that operates the infamous jail complex on Rikers Island—continued overseeing Hart Island and the burials that took place there. Burials were performed by inmate labor.

As Melinda’s advocacy continued, relatives of people buried on Hart Island started to reach out to her. Melinda wanted to create a searchable database so people could find their friends and relatives. At that time, the only way to identify the interred was by accessing the island’s burial ledgers, which documented who was buried on the island and where. The Department of Correction kept them on the island, and they had never been copied or digitized.

The Department of Correction denied Melinda’s early requests, so she lawyered up. Her legal counsel happened to be Reedies—Mark Taylor ’99 and David Rankin ’99, who practiced law in the firm Rankin & Taylor. They filed a public records request, using the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), for every burial record since 1985.

The Department of Correction denied the request, citing public safety concerns. “The law was very much on our side,” Mark remembered. They sued, and in October 2008, a county court ruled in Hunt v. New York City Dept. of Correction that the Department of Correction’s rationale for withholding the ledgers was “unfounded” and “unavailing,” with “no evidence or valid argument.”

Soon afterward, large leather-bound ledger books, in banker’s boxes, arrived at Rankin & Taylor’s offices. With over 50,000 handwritten entries, the ledgers revealed an abundance of information: names, dates of death, place of death, and, most importantly, the exact location of the resting place. “It was a real breakthrough for her and her work,” Mark said.

Melinda, along with some volunteers, scanned and digitized each ledger, uploading the information to the Hart Island Project’s website, work she continues to do. In 2014, she launched a storytelling platform that tells the stories of the buried. Called the Traveling Cloud Museum, it contains stories, photographs, videos, sound files, and epitaphs added to the website by family and friends who have identified their deceased loved ones.

The Traveling Cloud Museum shows the location of each burial plot. Clicking on the plot pulls up a list of everyone buried in that plot. Many list the person’s name and their age when they died. Others say “Male Unknown” or “Female Unknown.”

And there is the “clock of anonymity.” Next to each person’s entry, a clock ticks, showing how long they have been buried on Hart Island. When a loved one adds any information to a deceased person’s profile, the clock stops. It signifies that a deceased person is no longer just a name, but a part of someone’s family history and the larger history of New York City.

The Traveling Cloud Museum is a digital manifestation of a cemetery’s ultimate purpose: allowing family members to grieve, remember, and honor their loved ones through storytelling.

Starting in 2009, information about who was buried on the island was publicly available for the first time. “People could track down their loved ones,” Mark said. “It was a huge public service she conducted.”

More people with family buried on Hart Island began contacting Melinda. One woman wanted to visit the gravesite of her baby, who had been stillborn. Melinda contacted the Department of Correction, which told the woman she could attend a memorial service, held once a year, at a gazebo near the ferry dock. “For them to set up these trips to the gazebo was viewed as this tremendous pain in the ass,” Mark remembered. “It was really clear that [the Department of Correction] was not focused on anything having to do with Hart Island.” 

The department also contended it was impossible to find a grave. There were trenches with markers at each end, they contended, but individual gravesites were unmarked.

Mark remembered Melinda’s quick response: “I can find a grave!” 

That is because of Hart Island’s burial system. When one speaks with Melinda, it is a topic she often expounds on in a mini-lecture both morbid and fascinating. Hart Island uses a unique, efficient burial procedure that originated during the Civil War, when it was necessary to bury people quickly, but still allow their disinterment, so families could later rebury their loved ones.

People are buried in mass graves, in trenches containing 100 adults or 1,000 babies. They are buried in pine boxes stacked three deep in two lines, creating a grid. Each coffin is numbered. That allows the identification, by row and column, of any person’s gravesite. Consequently, as Mark put it, Melinda “always had that knowledge at her fingertips.”

In 2012, Rankin & Taylor petitioned the city on behalf of eight women who wanted to visit the graves of their infants. This time, the suit proved challenging. Mark wrote a complaint claiming that people have a common-law right to visit the gravesites of loved ones and that people have a right to a decent burial—and that inherently includes the ability for family and friends to visit the gravesite. “New York law seems never to have contemplated the circumstances present on Hart Island,” the complaint reads, “where the public is forbidden from visiting the graves of an active public cemetery on public land.”

The ACLU of New York also sued, filing a class action lawsuit in December 2014 on behalf of three women wishing to visit the gravesites of family members. Both lawsuits were resolved before going to court. The Department of Correction agreed to begin allowing bimonthly visits.

“None of this would have happened without Melinda’s work,” David Rankin said. “No one would know anything about Hart Island. It would just be an island on a map.” 

■ ■ ■

In 2017, Elsie Soto searched the Department of Correction’s database for her father. She found nothing. She had heard “about the lawsuits,” so she emailed Melinda, sitting at her computer “hitting refresh, refresh” afterward, Elsie remembered, waiting for Melinda’s reply.

Melinda answered all her questions. The Department of Correction’s database had spelled her father’s name incorrectly (“Nobert,” instead of “Norberto”). He was buried in Plot 231, in Grave #27. After 25 years, she knew where her father was buried. “Just like that. I was amazed,” Elsie said. “It was at that moment I could start grieving properly.”

Melinda helped Elsie and her family schedule a visit. “I was in awe that someone could make all this happen,” Elsie remembered. “Thank God for her.” In April 2018, Elsie, her sister, and her nephews visited Norberto’s gravesite. For the first time, Elsie felt closure.

When Lizzette Rivera’s mother died in 1984, Lizzette’s uncle, Zaida’s next of kin, had allowed the city to bury Zaida at Hart Island. He told Lizzette that government regulations prohibited them from going to Hart Island. When she heard that, “I was so angry,” Lizzette remembered, saddened by the idea that she and her family could never visit their mother’s grave.

Years later, her mother’s death certificate in hand, Lizzette called every city agency she thought could tell her where her mother was buried. She got nowhere. Finally, an officer at the Department of Correction—ironically—told Lizzette her mother’s name had been misspelled: “Zaidia,” with an extra “i.”

Poring through the 1984 burial ledgers, Melinda confirmed the misspelling. “The handwriting” that year, Melinda dryly said, “was particularly bad.”

“Melinda made it possible,” Lizzette said, for her and her family to visit. Lizzette, her brother, and sister visited their mother’s grave—Grave #6 of Plot 152—for the first time on November 14, 2021.

Afterward, each of Zaida’s children contributed to their mother’s entry in the Traveling Cloud Museum. Lizzette’s sister, Valerie, wrote a poem. Lizzette posted photographs. Lizzette’s brother, Paul, stopped their mother’s clock of anonymity at 36 years, 229 days, 15 minutes, and 29 seconds.

Even though so much time had passed, “she was never forgotten,” Lizzette said. “There was never a moment that we didn’t think about her, didn’t love her.”

“It’s beautiful,” Lizzette said of the gravesite. “It’s open. You can see the water.” Nearby, a long white rectangular concrete pad marks the remains of a launchpad for the first surface-to-air guided missile system, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the early years of the Cold War.

Her mom was a “firecracker,” Lizzette said. “This is where she is meant to be.” 

■ ■ ■

Now, Lizzette says she visits Hart Island to visit her mother’s grave, yes, but more to support her “Hart Island sisters.” Lizzette refers to a group of women, including Elsie, who have developed a sense of kinship through their shared experience of having family buried on the island.

During one visit, they wanted to accompany one another as they visited their relatives’ gravesites. They were told it wasn’t allowed—they weren’t on the list of approved people to visit that gravesite.     

“I’m not going to allow her to cry by herself,” Elsie thought. Then she realized people could bring up to four people, either family or guests. If they listed each other as guests, Elsie said, “they can’t tell us no.”

“We go as a group.” During a March 2023 visit, Elsie, Lizzette, three other women, and Melinda all visited the gravesites of the five women’s relatives. None of them mourns alone. 

■ ■ ■

In 2019, New York City’s city council voted to transfer control of Hart Island to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, ending penal control of the island. During one hearing, a New York City councilor described Melinda as a “brilliant and determined” activist who “almost single-handedly dragged this issue into the public spotlight.”

The practice of using inmate labor to perform burials ceased in April 2020, and in 2021 the Parks Department took over control of Hart Island. Last spring, 15 buildings on the island were demolished, the debris shipped away on barges. Underbrush and dead trees were removed. “Those are real changes, real outcomes,” Melinda said. “If a person had a baby buried six feet away from a building with the roof collapsed, it doesn’t say ‘The life of your baby mattered.’ ”   

Melinda continues creating in the digital sphere. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hart Island Project’s website was redesigned to work on mobile devices. While someone is on the island, GPS and navigation tools point out grave plots and historic locations. Through the use of augmented reality (AR), when someone stands near a gravesite, the image of a virtual grave marker appears on the screen—another way for someone to remember and connect with their history.

Tags: Alumni