New human remains discovered at reinterment site

Turnpike to look for another location for transfer from potter's field

Friday, August 08, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority's efforts to rebury the remains of thousands of individuals disinterred from a potter's field at a Turnpike construction site have hit a grim snag: New human remains have been discovered at the site chosen for reinterment.

Now the authority must find yet another site to rebury the remains of some 3,000 people discovered when the Turnpike began construction of an interchange to serve a new rail transfer station along its eastern spur.

Turnpike officials were stunned by the latest twist in what has been an unnerving attempt to rebury the potter's field remains under court supervision.

"It's just upsetting," authority spokesman Joe Orlando said. "Every time this project seems to be coming to a conclusion, something new will pop up. It's been very unsettling. I don't know how much more we can do to handle this in a compassionate and reverent way."

After human remains were found when construction began two years ago on the new $250 million interchange between Exits 16E and 18E, the authority hired an archeological consultant to conduct the court-ordered exhumation at what was a potter's field serving a Hudson County mental institution and hospital complex at the foot of Laurel Hill in Secaucus.

In January, the authority signed a $150,000 contract to rebury the remains at Hoboken Cemetery on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen. The cemetery has been under a court-appointed receiver since 1987 because of past fiscal problems and Orlando said the receiver assured the Turnpike there had been no prior burials in the plot tucked away in a low-lying corner of the hilly cemetery.

"We're outraged," Orlando said. "We have a contract that clearly says this area was free of any prior burials."

The new human remains were discovered when archeologists from the Turnpike's consulting firm, the Berger Group of East Orange, visited Hoboken Cemetery as the reinterment was about to begin. The remains, now kept in cardboard boxes at the Secaucus potter's field site, are to be buried in 9-foot-tall concrete vaults, 33 of which already have been placed in the ground.

"They're standing there going over the logistics and somebody looks down and notices bones," Orlando said. "We didn't have to do any sifting; these were clearly visible."

Orlando said the archeologists recovered 256 individual remains, ranging in size from bones as large as a femur and pieces of skull to smaller fragments. The remains have been turned over to the cemetery management company, Sanford Epstein Inc. of Kenilworth.

George Dougherty, the attorney for the cemetery's court-appointed receiver, Marion Yovan, said cemetery records do not indicate there were any burials in the area where the Turnpike wanted to reinter the remains it had discovered in Secaucus.

He speculated that the new remains may have surfaced during recent heavy rainfall after excavation for the 33 vaults already in the ground. He said he did not know whether the remains represented an old, uncharted burial ground at the cemetery or whether they were remnants from burial excavations during more than 100 years of cemetery operations.

Dougherty said dirt from those excavations may have been deposited over the years at the site the Turnpike planned to use for its reinterment.

"The jury is out as to whether what we've encountered is actually a grave area or merely accumulations of cemetery 'finds,'" he said, using a technical term for material from burial excavations.

Geneen Morris, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Cemetery Board, said the board will determine what happens to the latest remains after trying to ascertain how they came to be where they were found and what else might be buried there.

"There's a lot of work to be done to satisfy the board's concerns," she said, explaining the board would review old cemetery burial records and maps as part of its review.

Turnpike officials plan to meet today with the cemetery's receiver and officials from the cemetery board and state Attorney General's Office to determine what to do next. The Turnpike wants a refund of its $150,000, and Dougherty said the authority's request "won't be resisted."

The Turnpike then must find another reinterment site, Orlando said.

"As far as we're concerned, there's no other option than to find another location," he said, noting the Turnpike has made it a priority to try to find a single resting place for the remains from the Laurel Hill potter's field.

2003 Star Ledger

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