NEW YORK (CBSNewYork)Hart Island, a massive burial ground east of the Bronx, has eased visitation restrictions under new management. For the first time, visitors are allowed to take pictures and videos.

On Tuesday, CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge spoke to a family who discovered the final resting place of their loved one after years of searching.

The Smith family finally got to say goodbye to their sister, cousin and aunt, Valerie Smith, with a small service on Hart Island, four decades after she disappeared.

“After 40 years and five months, we found her. We’ve always been looking,” Barry Smith said.

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Barry Smith said his sister went missing in 1980 when she was 20 years old. All this time, they’ve had no idea what happened to her.

Her cousin, Megan Mackey, has never stopped searching.

“I was maybe like 9 or 10 years old and I said, ‘I’m gonna find her,'” Mackey said.

Mackey combed through city and NYPD records, scoured the internet for years, and finally a contact asked if she had checked out Hart Island, where more than 1 million New Yorkers are buried.

Sure enough, Valerie’s dental records matched a body buried there.

“Honestly, it took me a minute for it to sink it because I couldn’t believe it,” Mackey said.

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Police records show that months after Valerie went missing, a body was found near the 59th Street Bridge, but it was never matched with her missing person’s report.

People whose next of kin can’t be reached are buried by the city on Hart Island.

“There probably was a large backload of cases already. It was 1980 in New York City and we were never notified that they found her remains until Oct. 1 of this year,” Barry Smith said.

That day, just over two weeks ago, the Smith family finally received Valerie’s death certificate.

Oct. 1 is also the day the Parks Department took over visits to Hart Island from the Department of Correction, which had run them for 150 years. It was always highly restricted because Rikers Island prisoners dug the graves.

“I think people are afraid of visiting because it feels so dark. That’s what this family said, that they were really frightened of visiting and were pleasantly surprised,” said Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project.

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Hunt pushed for a city law that recently passed, to make Hart Island feel more like a graveyard, less like a prison, and allow visitors to bring their cellphones.

“We were allowed to take pictures, so that just felt different,” Hunt said. “It just looks better. The whole place looks better.”

All visits still must be scheduled five days in advance. Visitors must show their photo ID and wear a mask, but overall relatives say the overall experience now feels much more peaceful

“I’m happy knowing that my cousin is resting peacefully there because it really is a pretty place. The way that people label it is not right. It’s a beautiful island that people are resting on peacefully,” Mackey said.

“It’s just amazing after so much time we finally have some closure. This is, I believe, a story of hope and never giving up,” Barry Smith added.

The Smiths said it means a lot to them that they now have a physical place to grieve, leave flowers and honor Valerie’s memory, and have pictures of their experience to remember.

Relatives and close friends can contact the Parks Department to set up a visit.

Natalie Duddridge