It’s no longer wrapped up in the past.

The nation’s largest public cemetery — and purportedly the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world — is located just off the Bronx in the Long Island Sound, on Hart Island.

The mass gravesite dates back to 1869, and those wanting to pay their respects to any one of the 1 million souls buried there have long faced bureaucratic red tape and lack of transportation options.

But now, for the first time, NYC Parks will start offering free walking tours of the island twice a month beginning Nov. 21.

Participants in the 2.5-hour activity will be selected by lottery and provided ferry transportation to and from the island. Lottery registration for the first tour ends at 11:59 p.m. Nov. 16.

A sailboat passes behind an abandoned building on Hart Island on April 5, 2014.
AFP via Getty Images
Hart Island is seen from City Island on April 8, 2020.
Getty Images

The move, NYC Parks expressed in a statement, is “an effort to increase access to the island, reduce historical stigmas surrounding its past, and educate the public about its role as an important piece of City infrastructure.”

Added Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue, “We’re thrilled to begin offering free public history tours of Hart Island, allowing New Yorkers an intimate look at the island for the very first time. Our Urban Park Rangers have created informative and reflective programming that highlights the island’s important role in New York City history.” 

The tour initiative follows a 2019 City Council vote to make the site more accessible to families of the deceased and transfer control from the Department of Correction to the Parks Department, which has already made a number of changes since 2021.

The burial ground dates back to 1869.
Corbis via Getty Images
An aerial view of Hart Island.
Christopher Sadowski

“As Hart Island will continue to be the City’s main burial ground for the foreseeable future, we’re also pleased to unveil, in collaboration with sister agencies, the positive improvements and beautification efforts that have taken place to improve the experience at gravesite visits for those visiting loved ones buried on the island,” Donoghue added.

These efforts include the Department of Design and Construction’s $32 million undertaking to remove abandoned buildings (sparing select historic structures), plant new trees, clear grave-obstructing overgrowth, and landscape the area by the ferry dock, Untapped Cities reports.

Public tour schedule

  • Dec. 5, 2023
  • Dec. 19, 2023
  • Jan. 16, 2024
  • Jan. 30, 2024
  • Feb. 13, 2024
  • Feb. 27, 2024
  • March 12, 2024
  • March 26, 2024
  • April 9, 2024
  • April 23, 2024
  • May 14, 2024
  • May 28, 2024

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