In 1985, the first infant to die from AIDS in New York City was buried in a gravestone marked “SC-B1 1985” on Hart Island, off the coast of the Bronx in New York. That grave is referred to by some as the “Tomb of the Unknown Child.”
“SC” stands for “Special Child” and “B1” stands for “Baby number 1.”
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. Hart Island has been the final resting place for unclaimed bodies and the bodies of the indigent in New York City since just after the Civil War.
I’m Judd Hirsch. This heart-breaking story speaks to me as a native New Yorker.
In 1985, little was known about the cause or spread of AIDS, and empathy and respect for people with AIDS suffered as a result. So, these early AIDS burials were done differently.
Until 2021, burials on Hart Island were done by the Department of Corrections. Its officers supervised inmates from Rikers Island who dug the graves for 50 cents an hour. The officers and inmates were afraid to catch disease from the dead bodies, so they wore protective gear that they threw out after each burial.
Strangely, but perhaps poetically in retrospect, they buried these first 17 AIDS victims in individual graves because of fear and lack of understanding, 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-most tip of the island.
AIDS killed IV drug users who shared needles and their babies who contracted the disease in-utero. It killed poor people whose families and friends couldn’t afford a private cemetery plot. It killed gay men and kids estranged from 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. In 1983, New York State Funeral Directors Association urged members not to embalm AIDS fatalities. These poor souls had nowhere to go except Hart Island.
Eventually it became clear that the bodies of people 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.
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.