By Natalie Duddridge

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A massive public graveyard is undergoing a transformation.

New city management has taken over Hart Island in the Bronx to make it more welcoming to visitors.

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Advocates say conditions at the cemetery have improved, but there’s still a long way to go.

As CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge reported Tuesday, drone video shows an aerial view of Hart Island, where more than 1 million New Yorkers are buried, including those whose families couldn’t afford funerals, or next of kin couldn’t be reached.

“Such a stigma of being buried there,” said Sean Rickard, who has a family member buried on Hart Island.

It took years for him to track down his great uncle, Christopher Rickard, who was buried on Hart Island in 1939. He was a WWI veteran who moved here from Ireland.

“He may have lost contact with the family. His body wasn’t apparently claimed, which is really sad because he’s kind of seen as a hero in the family,” Sean Rickard said.

Hart Island (Photo: CBS2)

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Rickard was part of the first group of people to visit Hart Island since the Parks Department assumed jurisdiction last weekend, ending 150 years of control by the city Department of Correction. Until now, Rikers prisoners buried the bodies on Hart Island, which meant the grounds were highly restricted.

“What we want to do is have it more resemble the experience of visiting any cemetery,” said Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project.

Hunt advocated for years for changes finally approved in 2019 to make the island more accessible. She said there’s a waitlist of loved ones hoping to see relatives lost to major public health crises — first HIV AIDS and most recently COVID-19.

“There has been a big uptick in burials since COVID. It’s about three times the number of burials to the prior year. But it hasn’t yet exceeded 1988 or 1989 during the AIDS epidemic,” Hunt said.

She said visits are still limited and must be booked five days in advance. An old city rule that no pictures be taken hasn’t been lifted.

“All I wanted was a picture of the flowers I left on the cross,” Rickard said. “I wasn’t allowed to do that, and I was kind of saddened that I wasn’t. I think that should change over time.”

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Relatives hope the changes happen soon so they can pay their respects freely.

Natalie Duddridge