New York allows rare glimpse of its potter's field cemetery

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A rare look inside New York's potter's field

NEW YORK, June 27 (Reuters) - On an island off the coast of The Bronx in Long Island Sound, unmarked stones rest atop mass graves showing where one plot ends and another begins. Each plot contains 150 bodies.

This is New York's potter's field, one of the largest cemeteries in the United States where the unclaimed dead, the unknown and the very poor have been laid to rest for more than a century.

Accessible only by boat, about 1 million people have been interred on Hart Island. Another 1,000 coffins are buried there each year, said Carleen McLaughlin, director of legislative affairs for New York City's Department of Corrections, which oversees the cemetery. According to the agency's website, the city purchased the island in 1868.

"Unfortunately, there are always people who fall off the radar," Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan said on Monday.

"You have to have some place to inter them, so that's what happens" at Hart Island, he said.

The island has been the site of a prison, a reformatory, a workhouse and a Nike Missile base, among other things, Ultan said.

During June the city provided a rare opportunity to film much of the public burial ground.

See photos from the cemetery:

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Potter's field cemetery in New York
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Potter's field cemetery in New York
A ferry approaches Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A New York City Department of Corrections bus is seen amid abandoned buildings and marked mass grave sites on Hart Island, New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A ferry approaches Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A headstone stands in a visitor area on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A small statue stands on the shore of Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A crumbling peace monument, built in 1948 by former inmates, stands on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A holding container where disinterred human remains removed from mass graves were kept is seen on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Stones mark mass graves on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tools are seen in a holding container on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A heart painted on a rock lies on a headstone in a visitor area on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A damaged stone marks a mass grave on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Stones marking mass graves stand on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A cross made of stones is seen amid stones marking mass graves on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Buildings stand on Hart Island, the former location of a prison and hospital that is a potter's field burial site of as many as one million people, in New York, United States June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar SEARCH "PAUPERS GRAVE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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Today, the task of burying bodies at the 131-acre (53-hectare) potter's field has fallen to prisoners who are ferried back and forth.

"The prisoners look upon this as good duty," Ultan said, adding, "They're out in the fresh air, they're getting exercise and they're away from the prison."

Since settling a class-action lawsuit, the Department of Corrections allows people to visit burial sites on the island. Visitors were previously confined to a small area on a corner of the island.

Many older markers are bare, but newer ones carry numbers that coincide with an identification number on each coffin. The ID number, and name if known, are put into an online database that helps people find deceased relatives and friends.

Some 40 bodies a year are identified and returned to families.

Advocates for the families of those buried on the island have pushed for the space to be taken over by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. Ultan said that so far, parks and recreation has resisted the idea.

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