Hudson County Superior Court Judge Thomas Oliveri heard arguments from representatives from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and others and is scheduled to rule on Dec. 6 as to what should be done with the remains of people buried in a county graveyard in Secaucus at the site of a future Turnpike exit.
The Turnpike Authority has been seeking guidance from the court as to whether to leave the remains or relocate them to another site. Moving them could cost the Turnpike as much as $4 million. The estimated number of remains varies from 1,000 to 3,000. Oliveri is waiting to review reports by Turnpike-hired experts before making his decision.
Turnpike officials they stumbled over the remains during a 2001 excavation in anticipation of constructing a $225 million exit to service the Secaucus Transfer Rail Station, commonly called Allied Junction - although documents submitted to the court show that the Turnpike knew about the site since the mid-1990s and authorized a study to determine the historic significance of the location.
Jerry Colangiovanni, public information officer for the Turnpike Authority, said the Turnpike originally constructed a bridge over the graveyard when the roadway was constructed in the early 1950s. When engineers started studies for a new exit to be constructed in the area to access the Secaucus Rail Transfer Station, they came upon remains.
"During excavation, they did a sampling in the area and came upon some remains," he said. "Work stopped. A firm was hired to investigate and get background. But it is been difficult to identify who was buried there or track family lineage. We knew that some of the people worked for or lived in Hudson County."
A report done for the Turnpike in 1999 on the site said the burial ground was associated with the former Hudson County facilities at Laurel Hill (a prison, senior citizen building and mental hospital), but according to town historian Dan McDonough, the history of the grave yard may have its roots in the original poor farm located in the area.
Agreement with one relative
Patrick Andriani, a former Hudson County resident who has been searching for his grandfather's burial place for decades, has asked the court to allow him to be on the location when the Turnpike opens the graves and to relocate his grandfather to another grave. The Turnpike Authority eventually agreed.
Andriani said he met with Turnpike officials, their attorney as well as members of The Berger Group - the archeological firm likely to do the disinterment - and got a verbal agreement that he can be present.
"We reached a verbal agreement with the [The Turnpike Authority] that the dis-internment and reburial plan they will be submitting to Judge Thomas Oliveri will reflect every reasonable effort to ensure that the work done will be consistent with my desire to identify the ground markers and possibly the remains of my grandfather," Andriani said. "[The Turnpike Authority] appears to be showing good faith efforts with a plan that will allow reasonable access to the in-progress disinterment of the section of the cemetery in which my grandfather's remains may be located."
Turnpike spokesperson Joseph Orlando said that critics are "very sincere" in their concerns, and that this sincerely by Andriani led the Turnpike Authority to honor his request.
Andriani, however, said he is still concerned about the "big picture" involving Hudson County's sale of land to the Turnpike Authority. Earlier this year, the Hudson County Board of Freeholders voted to sell five acres of land - including the graveyard - to the Turnpike.
Another relative reacts
Bill Hastings of Bayonne - who also believes he has a relative buried at the site - is part of a petition drive to halt any attempt to move the graveyard and to restore the site to a location that honors those who are buried there.
"I don't want to see the cemetery moved," Hastings said.
Hastings searched a published list of those known to be buried at the site and found the name of his great-grandfather, James Brew.
"I was looking for my great-grandmother's sister, Henna Sweeney, who died around the turn of the century," Hastings said.
Sweeney's name was not on the list. Brew, an Irish immigrant and resident of Jersey City, died of Tuberculosis in one of the hospitals at Laurel Hill, Secaucus, in 1884.
Hastings believes the treatment of the graveyard to date has been disrespectful.
"As the site has for so long been neglected, the thought of viewing it as a legitimate cemetery has long since expired," he said. "Still it is a fact that it is a place of human burial which needs to be addressed. You cannot simply pave over the dead and place a little memorial at some [other] location."
If the Turnpike has to install the exit ramp over the existing grave yard, Hastings believes the state and county should bear the cost of relocating the bodies to "a more reasonable site that does not interfere with the construction of the proposed ramp," and one within reasonable distance for people to have access to the graves. Hastings suggested the new location might be Mills Point Park in the north end of Secaucus.
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono said the park site is out of the question. He said the site would have to be on private property.
Hasting's petition has nearly 1,000 signatures, and those wishing to add their names can do so by going on-line to his web page http://www.graveinfo.com.
Response from the community
Former Secaucus Mayor Anthony Just disagreed with moving the graveyard.
"They should leave the cemetery alone," he said, "and find another way to build the exit."
When mayor, Just was a staunch opponent of the commercial element of the Secaucus Transfer Station, and his legal wrangling with various private and public entities held up the construction for nearly a decade.
"I think people need to take responsibility for this and treat that cemetery as a cemetery," Just said. "leave the graves where they are. If anyone wants to find their family they can go there. If made like a real cemetery, everyone can put flowers on the graves in which the bodies were buried."
Just holds former county administrations responsible for the debacle, saying it was the county's responsibility to maintain the facility.
Heavy brush, back fill and refuse currently cover many of the graves. Some of this came as a result of the construction of the county's temporary jail on part of the site in the early 1980s.
"When they built that jail, the county had to have uncovered some of the remains, since they had to put piles down into spots where people were buried," Just said.
Construction materials also contributed to flooding in the area so that some of the graves are under water. Carmen Ross, a local resident, said he remembered the institutions down at that part of town, and said he was aware of people being buried in the graveyard
"It's an absolute disgrace, what's going on down there," Ross said.
Religious leaders disagree
Earlier this year, Robert Grimm, assistant engineer for the New Jersey Parking Authority, asked the Secaucus religious community to give its blessing to plans that would leave bodies under the site of the proposed exit.
Three of the four religious leaders have agreed to give the Turnpike permission to build over the bodies. But Rev. Will Henkel of the First Reformed Church raised strong objections to continuing the work.
"I was particularly moved by the list of names," Rev. Henkel said. "That made them all come alive for me. Some of them were stillborn infants, some were the victims of contagious diseases."
Rev. Henkel said the state has accommodated cemeteries in the past, and points to the construction of the Garden State Parkway through a cemetery in the South Orange-Irvington area.
"I think the Turnpike officials should look to see what was done there and follow that," Rev. Henkel said. "We owe something to the people that are buried there. We need to be respectful for the people buried there."
Angie Rotella Suarez, a resident of West New York, works in a Newark Catholic music ministry.
"I was heartbroken when I read the accounts of those people in the Reporter," she said. "I called the police to tell me how to get there so I could bring a bouquet of flowers. No one could tell me where the cemetery was."
"I don't like the idea that those people were forgotten," she said. "They are not just bones. They had a spiritual value, and all of us in Hudson County have that cemetery as part of our ancestry."
Suarez has written a letter to the judge raising what she call as the "spiritual and moral implications" of his decision.
"What has happen to old time values?" she asked. "New values say we should cement over that place and forget these people every existed. I don't believe that."
Suarez said she did not know whether or not the remains should be removed or left in place, but said they should be respected no matter what is done.
"It's things like this that make people aware of how much we need to get back to basic values," she said. "If we don't show our kids we have respect for the dead, that the dead have value, then nothing has value."