/Queens mom’s quest to visit child’s Hart Island grave gets boost

Queens mom’s quest to visit child’s Hart Island grave gets boost

A Queens mom may finally get to visit her infant daughter’s gravesite without feeling shame for the first time.

Nurse Elaine Joseph told The Post she is hoping that the City Council’s vote last week to improve access to Hart Island — the potter’s field off The Bronx where her premature daughter’s body was tossed in a mass grave in 1978 — will help erase the stigma and hurdles she and others have faced trying to visit their late loved ones there.

“This is changing history,’’ the 65-year-old mom said of the new legislation, which passed Thursday.

“Everyone’s human and deserves dignity.’’

Joseph’s daughter, Tomika, was born two months prematurely in February 1978 and died within days. The mom couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to claim her baby’s body because of a catastrophic snowstorm, which also caused mass confusion at the hospital.

By the time things cleared, Tomika’s tiny body was mistakenly already buried at Hart, although Joseph says she never learned the truth till 2009.

“I wanted to bury my daughter. I couldn’t find her. She got lost by the city,’’ Joseph said.

It took 31 years before the mom learned her daughter was buried on Hart. It took another five years before the city allowed Joseph, a Navy veteran, and others with loved ones buried on the island to begin visiting gravesites there.

Even then, the situation was far from ideal.

Up till last year, visitors had to apply for transportation to Hart six months in advance and could only walk once around the grounds once a month.

Several months ago, graveside visits were upped to twice a month. Visitors also could apply to walk the grounds five days in advance.

Visitors are still taken back and forth on the same ferry that helps transport bodies to the island.

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Joseph with the doll that she will place on her daughter’s Hart Island grave.

RICHARD HARBUS

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A polaroid taken near the grave of Joseph’s daughter.

RICHARD HARBUS

Hart is the largest cemetery in the nation for indigent, unidentified and unclaimed dead. It opened during the Civil War and now has more than an estimated 1 million people buried there.

The desolate isle’s mass graves hold coffins for about 150 adults, or 1,000 babies, at a time and are noted by plain white markers.

The graves are dug by Rikers Island inmates.

The push to improve access to Hart gained steam a few years ago, when activists discovered it was the final resting place for thousands of AIDS victims who were denied proper burials because of the stigma related to their disease. FX’s groundbreaking drama “Pose” featured an entire episode about the island this year.

The new legislation transfers control of Hart from the city’s Department of Corrections to its Parks Department to try to help erase any taint from being run by the jail system.

“[DOC workers] are wonderful people, but I don’t need a correction officer by my side when I go visit my baby,’’ Joseph said.

The city Department of Transportation, plus a second agency picked by the mayor, then have a year to come up with a better plan to transport visitors, including possibly by offering public ferry service on a daily basis.

Melinda Hunt, the filmmaker behind the 2010 documentary “Hart Island: An American Cemetery’’ who has advocated on behalf of families, hailed the council’s efforts.

“Hart Island is an important part of New York City and we should turn it into a place that we can be proud of. It’s the largest natural burial ground in the country, and it is being managed as a liability instead of an asset,’’ she said.

For Joseph, the legislation is a long time coming.

She lamented the twist of events that ended with her daughter being buried in a pauper’s field.

“All these years, she could have been in a beautiful area, and I could’ve been putting flowers [on her grave],’’ Joseph said.