From New County Road in Secaucus, you couldn't see where the graveyard was unless you knew what to look for.
This year, Bill Hastings and other family members of those buried here decided to make it clear just how far the graveyard extends by putting up ceremonial crosses.
This was in anticipation of a Jan. 2 visit by Superior Court Judge Thomas Oliveri, who will decide on Jan. 16 what will be done with the remains of the old county grave site, where the state's Turnpike Authority plans to construct an exit. The cemetery holds the remains of the county's poor and those who died decades ago in county institutions (a jail, hospitals) once located at Laurel Hill Park.
"We wanted the public to know that people are buried here," Hastings said during a brief visit on Dec. 29.
Hastings, who lives in Bayonne, had a great-grandfather, James Brew, who is buried here. Hastings recently helped initiate a petition drive to halt any attempt to move the graveyard. Instead, he would like to restore the site to a location that honors those who are buried here.
While the Turnpike Authority claims there are three different graveyards in the area, and that only one would be disturbed by the interchange. Thus, they would not have to move two of the graveyards. Hastings and several local officials dispute these claims.
Former Mayor Anthony Just, who also visited the space, claimed it was always one large graveyard. Local historian Dan McDonough said the site has served as a graveyard as far back the beginning of recorded history and may have served native Americans before that.
Days before his return to the burial site, Hastings paid a visit to the county archives at Meadowview Hospital, where he found three leather-bound volumes with more than 9,000 names listed as being buried here. Most of these were Hudson County residents whom Hastings said should not be relocated outside the county if the court orders their relocation.
The Turnpike plan submitted to the court would move an estimated 3,500 remains buried here between 1920 and 1962. These are located on about two acres of the five-acre property the authority purchased from Hudson County.
"The Turnpike says there are three graveyards," Hastings said. "But county records make no distinction. The names of the people buried there are in three books. When one book was filled up, the county started the next book."
Woods cover some sections of the graveyard. A small pond still covers another section.
Conflicting needs of the community
The Turnpike Authority, in making its arguments before Oliveri, is looking for guidance as to what to do about the graves. Should they be relocated? If so, where? And how many?
Hastings and others put up their symbolic grave markers in three locations to mark the full extent of the graveyard actively used by Hudson County until the closing of institutions at Laurel Hill in 1962. Hudson County maintained several hospitals, a prison and poor house at Laurel Hill from a point before the Civil War. In 1962, these institutions were closed down and the operations moved to new facilities at the Meadowview Hospital campus a few miles away on County Avenue in Secaucus.
Hastings, along with Gerrnaro Andriani, a 72-year-old carpenter from Lakewood whose father's remains are buried here, set up the markers in late December to make it clear to Oliveri the full extent of the graveyard and to highlight the fact that people were buried here, despite improvements made by the Turnpike that made the most conspicuous part of the yard nearly inaccessible.
The group of concerned family members put one cross in the woods at the south end of the former graveyard, another cross near the former county jail, and a group of crosses near the caretaker's house, which still stands. The house, however, is nearly inaccessible because of roadway construction done by the Turnpike, and requires people to slide down a muddy embankment before reaching a path along the south side of the old jail. Although the jail is slated for destruction with parts already knocked down, remnants remain like markers to a previously dark history in which the county constructed a facility over part of the graveyard, moving the bones and other remains to a mass grave elsewhere.
Could be thousands
The estimates of how many remains are still located here vary, although the number could be in the thousands. Because a section of land was sold to the Turnpike this year, the Turnpike Authority has inherited the problem.
County officials are concerned and sympathetic with the plight of family members who seek to have the remains respected, but say the cost of correcting past errors could create significant financial woes for today's taxpayers. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said that if the Turnpike moves the remains, the problem would be solved. If not, or if only a portion of the remains are moved, then a memorial would be appropriate for the site - a place where family members could pay their respects.
DeGise acknowledged the fact that this was an emotional issue for family members and has instructed county department heads to cooperate with the Turnpike in resolving the problem.
"The people buried there should be treated with respect," he said.
Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell said the issue is extremely complex. "The county will have to balance conflicting needs," he said.
While he believes the county should set up a memorial, the Turnpike exit is vital to the growth of that part of Secaucus and other rail improvements in the area vital to the economy of northern New Jersey.
For former Mayor Anthony Just, who knew some of the people buried here, a memorial is not enough. "This ground is sacred," he said. "It should not be used for a Turnpike exit."
With his pleas and his petition largely ignored by the court because unlike other relatives, he has not filed suit, Hastings said numerous other people who sent him e-mails or signed the petition agreed with him. He believes the graveyard should be restored.
"I'm disturbed by the fact that the judge won't hear my testimony," Hastings said, "or even take a look at our petitions. A lot of people believe those buried here should be respected."
Oliveri said he would make his decision on legal issues, not based on public opinion.