It’s a somber and heartbreaking story that speaks of untold losses during the early AIDS epidemic. In the 1980s and 1990s, HIV killed more than 100,000 New Yorkers. Many of them were destitute or had been shunned by their families. What did the city do with all these bodies?

The New York Times uncovers some answers in the feature “Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field.”

A potter’s field is a public burial place for the indigent people (such as homeless and poor people), unclaimed bodies and strangers to a community. New York City’s potter’s field is located on Hart Island, near the Bronx.

According to Reuters, the city acquired the island in 1868. About a million people are buried on the 131-acre field. Nearly 1,000 more are added each year, and about 40 of those are eventually identified and returned to relatives. (Click the Reuters link to see a slideshow of Hart Island.)

The New York Times reports that during the height of the AIDS epidemic, about 8,000 people died each year. It was a stigmatizing disease, fraught with fear, and many funeral homes would not accept the bodies of those who had HIV.

Thousands of people who died of AIDS-related illness were buried on Hart Island. In fact, according to the newspaper, it could be the largest burial ground for people lost to the epidemic.

At first, those bodies were quarantined and interred separately. Others were buried anonymously in mass graves.

Determining whether a loved one is buried at the site can be a challenge because the city, until recently, had kept much of the information from the public.

Melinda Hunt is an activist trying to bring those shadowed details to light. “Part of the history of the AIDS epidemic is buried on Hart Island,” she tells the Times, “and it’s the unknown part.”