City approves temporary placement for Hart Island memorial touchstone

The NYC Parks and Recreation Department has approved the Hart Island touchstone for temporary placement on the island.
The NYC Parks and Recreation Department has approved the Hart Island touchstone for temporary placement on the island.
Photo courtesy Lewis Randa

After nearly seven months of meetings and marches, the Hart Island Touchstone Coalition will be able to place their bereavement stone on the island. 

The city confirmed the move Thursday. 

This monument has been approved to be temporarily installed on Hart Island, and we are coordinating with the group on the logistics of transporting the monument to the island,” a spokesperson from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation told the Bronx Times via email on Thursday. “The long term positioning (and) location is still under discussion.”

The coalition, led by coordinator Elsie Soto, is a group advocating for the placement of a seven-by-four touchstone to properly memorialize all those buried on the island in unmarked graves — bodies that went unclaimed after their death, whose family did not have the financial means to bury them, or who died of pandemic diseases.

The stone — which was donated by the Peace Abbey Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that aims to create and install public works of art that promote peace — is adorned with the words “Global Pandemics; Touchstone for Humanity.”

Local advocates pushing for memorial touchstone on Hart Island run into roadblocks

The small isle off the eastern coast of the Bronx, also known as the City Cemetery or Potter’s Field, is a mass graveyard that hosts more than 1 million New Yorkers. When the city began using Hart Island as a public burial site in 1869, plots were occupied by people who “died indigent.” And most recently the island was used to bury people who died of epidemic and pandemic diseases, most notably AIDS and COVID-19.

Soto, whose father died of AIDS-related complications when she was 9 years old, was buried on Hart Island. She told the Bronx Times in a previous interview that it took her more than 20 years to be able to finally visit his grave. 

She ran into a bit of bureaucratic red tape trying to get city approval over the past seven months, describing a lack of communication from city agencies and a slow process. But in a statement Friday, Soto said she is grateful for the city’s position. 

“I want to express my sincerest appreciation to Mayor Eric Adams and his office for recognizing the importance of placing a memorial on Hart Island,” Soto said. “Their support is a crucial step in honoring the lives of those buried there and shifting the negative perceptions surrounding this historic site.” 

Lewis Randa, the director of the Peace Abbey Foundation, said in a statement that the city’s move is symbolic for all New Yorkers who have loved ones buried on the island. 

With the acceptance of the Global Pandemics Touchstone, NYC has taken a significant step to revitalize Hart Island,” Randa said. “This memorial marker includes not only victims of pandemics that succumbed to contagious diseases like AIDS and COVID-19, etc., but societal diseases as well — namely homelessness, gun violence, discrimination, poverty, and healthcare disparities.” 

Back when her father passed, and continuing to this day to some extent, Soto said many have had unsavory feelings associated with those buried on Hart Island. She said the touchstone is the first step in properly acknowledging the legacy of all those buried there. 

“I am grateful to everyone involved in this effort to commemorate not only my father Norberto Soto, but also the countless New Yorkers who rest on Hart Island,” she said. “Together, we can ensure that their legacies are not forgotten.” 

The coalition plans to have a placement ceremony on Hart Island later this spring or summer, but the date is yet to be determined.

Reach Camille Botello at or (718) 260-2535. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes