Cemetery, in receivership, had been counting on funds

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

By Steve Strunsky
Associated Press Writer

NORTH BERGEN - Like something out of a Tennessee Williams play, the wooded, sloping Hoboken Cemetery rests in peaceful decay.

Old graveyards never die, they just go into receivership, their court-appointed guardians scrimping to keep nature at bay, even after the grounds run out of room for new souls and income from the sale of plots.

So it was near damnation for the cemetery to have to refund $150,000 to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority after a plan to reinter 3,500 sets of remains at Hoboken was thwarted by the discovery of old bone fragments.

Hoboken Cemetery, which is in North Bergen, and Evergreen Cemetery in Camden are the only graveyards in receivership in New Jersey, according to Genene Morris, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Cemetery Board.

All cemeteries in New Jersey are nonprofit, said Morris.

Hoboken Cemetery, which dates back to the early 1800s, went into receivership in 1987 after it became insolvent. Sanford Epstein, whose for-profit company has contracts to maintain 14 cemeteries in the state, including Hoboken, said the maintenance budget is about $50,000 a year. The money is derived largely from interest on a maintenance fund, now at about $500,000, mandated under the state Cemetery Act of 1971.

The law was passed with an eye toward eternity, seeking to ensure at least bare operating funds for cemeteries once all their plots were sold.

"The grass is always cut," said Epstein, 67, whose family has been in the cemetery maintenance business since 1913. But he said Hoboken could use more money for things like righting some 200 toppled headstones, cutting vines and pulling weeds.

So it seemed like a blessing when the New Jersey Turnpike Authority paid $150,000 to reinter remains from the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Secaucus, which was dug up to make way for a new turnpike interchange.

Joe Orlando, a turnpike spokesman, said about 3,500 sets of remains from Laurel Hill will now go to one of three other cemeteries after a more thorough vetting process.

The $150,000 was mailed back to the turnpike authority last week, Epstein said, after old bone fragments were found in the area where the turnpike remains were to go.

Before the discovery of bone fragments, more than 30 white concrete vaults were buried but not covered in a sun-baked corner of the cemetery. Two vaults remain above ground, weird monuments to a costly mortal shuffle.

On the dried mud nearby was evidence of a recent rainfall's grisly harvest: a smooth, round shape, smaller than a fist, that looked like the tip of a human femur.

It was the discovery of fragments like that that forced Hoboken to return the money and sent the turnpike authority looking for a vacancy elsewhere.

Epstein said the area had been used to pile soil displaced from graves by coffins, which is where he believed the bone fragments came from - not from graves that had been dug in the spot. In any event, there are no records for that area of the cemetery, Epstein said.

The cemetery board is looking into the situation, Morris said.

Orlando, the turnpike spokesman, was not satisfied.

"Saying these are just bones from another part of the cemetery, that's their argument?" Orlando said. "Stephen King might find that interesting, we find that offensive."

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