A gravestone marked “SC-B1 1985” on Hart Island, off the coast of the Bronx in New York, is referred to by some as the “Tomb of the Unknown Child.”
“SC” stands for Special Child and “B1” stands for Baby number 1.
In 1985, SC-B1 was the first infant to die from AIDS in New York City. His or her name is unknown.
The Special Child was buried along with 16 other people who died from AIDS. They were the first group of AIDS burials on Hart Island.
At the time, little was known about the causes of AIDS, or how it could be spread, so these early AIDS burials were done differently. Until 2021, burials here were done by the Department of Corrections. Its officers supervised inmates from Rikers Island who dug the graves.
The officers and inmates were afraid of catching the disease from the dead bodies, so they wore protective gear that they threw out after each burial. Strangely, but poetically perhaps in retrospect, they buried these first 17 AIDS victims in individual graves, not in the mass-grave trenches used for the rest of the island’s dead. They were buried as deep in the ground as the backhoe would go, on the southern tip of the island.
Unclaimed bodies and the bodies of the indigent in New York City are sent here. AIDS killed IV drug users and their babies who contracted the disease in utero. It killed poor people whose families and friends couldn’t afford a cemetery plot elsewhere. And it killed gay men and kids estranged by their families or who had run away from home. Many of their parents wanted nothing to do with a child who had AIDS.
Many funeral homes refused to handle bodies of those who died of AIDS, following a 1983 advisory from the New York State Funeral Directors Association not to embalm AIDS fatalities.
These are many of the AIDS deaths on Hart Island. Eventually, it became clear that the bodies of those who died of AIDS presented no risk of contagion, so those bodies (including babies) were buried on Hart Island in mass graves like the rest, crates
stacked on top of each other, covered in dirt by bulldozers.
Over one million people are interred on Hart Island. It is estimated that over one-third of the dead are infants and stillborn babies.
Hart Island has been called the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. Burials on the island began shortly after the American Civil War. In 1869, the city then began using it as a public cemetery for unclaimed bodies and the indigent dead. Funeral ceremonies have not been conducted at the burial site since the 1950s.
The Hart Island Project is a nonprofit founded by artist Melinda Hunt to improve access to the island and information on its burials so that more of the bodies can be identified. The Hart Island Project AIDS Initiative now helps people to try and identify those buried on Hart Island who died of AIDS.