Coastal erosion reveals human remains on spooky islands that served as mass graves long ago.

New York’s Island of the Dead

Hart Island is New York City’s “potters field” where one million of the poor, unclaimed, or unidentified dead are buried. Since 1868, bodies have been interred on the island making it the nation’s largest cemetery. Islands, however, are not great places for burial due to high water tables and erosion. Strong storms in the past few years have eaten away at the land and exposed remains, most of which were interred in mass graves or wooden coffins. Now, along the shores of Hart Island, visible from the Bronx, entire skeletons are falling from the soil onto the beach and are washing into the Long Island Sound. In early April 2018, 174 bones were removed after being exposed in eroded scarps.

The north shore of the island (now called “Bone Beach”) is particularly prone to erosion after it was pummeled during Hurricane Sandy in 2015. From AM NY (February 24, 2018):

A study by two forensic anthropologists at the city medical examiner’s office about nine months after Sandy found human remains in the eroded island cliff banks at numerous locations.

“Disarticulated bones were observed on the shore line and along the cliff bank,” the report stated, adding that two exposed burials were observed actively eroding. Parts of skulls and large bones were found as well, they reported.

The anthropologists said the bones appeared to have been buried more than 50 years ago. In cases of erosion, DOC officials said, the medical examiner is called and the remains collected so they can eventually be reinterred.

Hart Island has a very sad modern history. It was previously used as a Civil War soldiers camp and prison, a quarantine location for yellow fever victims, a women’s insane asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, a Cold War missile base, and a prison. The island is currently run by the Department of Corrections. Prisoners from Rikers Island still dig graves here. Trenches are reused after several decades as the remains decay. Many believe the island is haunted by the souls of the abandoned who were placed there but since access to the island is tightly controlled, not many have experienced the environment. The depressing history of the island was chronicled in this piece by the NY Times in 2016.

1890 photo by Jacob Riis of a trench being used for bodies on Hart Island.

The burial ground is contentious, as money appropriated to address the issue has not been used so far. Work is expected to begin in January 2020. People also want the ability to more easily visit the island to pay respects. Certainly, it is not respectful to have bodies washing out into the water but rising sea levels and more powerful storms signal trouble for islands as erosion or inundation looks to be inevitable.

Modern internment – bodies are taken by ferry to the island then unloaded into trenches.

Deadman’s island, U.K.

Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are revealing old wooden coffins and skeletal remains on Deadman’s Island in Kent, U.K. It’s not a pretty site. A river island seems to be a particularly bad place to bury people just for this sort of reason. It did allow the bodies to be isolated but, as we see, they are being gradually and gruesomely freed from their muddy graves.

According to this BBC article, the Isle of Sheppey, which is now a protected wetland area for wildlife, was where the dead from prison boats were buried in the 19th century. The remains are visible at low tide but it’s likely they will continue to be naturally exhumed, making this a very creepy place indeed. The island, opposite Queensborough, is off limits to landing but trips via kayak are allowed.

The island has supernatural tales associated with it, as would be expected for such a history. In 1950, two journalists made their way to the island and found bones strewn about but no skulls. Neil Arnold’s Haunted Isle of Sheppey says that the local legend was that demon hounds had ravaged the remains and eaten the brains in the skulls.

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