Grieving daughter helps honor late father and others buried at Hart Island

Elsie Soto was just 10 years old when her father, Norbert, died of HIV/AIDS. Now, she’s an advocate to make sure he and others buried at Hart Island are never forgotten.  
“He’s my passion for doing this, the love that I have for my dad, the love that he has for me, it transcends boundaries in the physical world,” said Soto, who is a coordinator for the Hart Island Tombstone Coalition.  
Soto says having her father buried at the city’s public cemetery on Hart Island with no headstone was the only choice, as funeral homes would not take her father because of his disease. From her first visit to the island on a prison bus, she knew he and many others deserved more.  
"Try to break that stigma of it being such a negative place, a lonely place, a place of the forgotten because I've never forgotten my dad, not one day has gone by that I've forgotten him and I know I'm not the only one,” said Soto.  
She has teamed up with the Peace Abbey Foundation to create a two-ton granite touchstone to honor the people affected by global pandemics like AIDS and COVID-19 who are buried on the island. Soto worked with the mayor’s office to make it a permanent memorial for over 1 million New Yorkers.  
The Hart Island Tombstone Coalition and Soto are leading a bereavement walk and vigil on May 28. The headstone will be placed on Hart Island on June 5.