Proposal made to solve a Philly riddle: What to do when you dig up old bones

Since 1985, more than 20 abandoned and forgotten cemeteries have been stumbled on by builders or contractors or city workers digging in the ground.

There have been cemeteries uncovered in the basements of homes, and beneath playgrounds, highways, and even sidewalks.

Every time bones turn up in a contractor’s shovel, the response is the same, archaeologist Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (PAF), told a public gathering of about 75 people at the Arch Street Meeting House on Thursday.

“People tend to react like this is the first time something like this has happened,” Mooney told those gathered for a discussion of what to do about the city’s many forgotten cemeteries. “Philadelphia is built on graveyards.”

PAF has put together a proposal that would clearly define responsibilities and procedures when an orphaned cemetery is discovered. For instance, the Department of Licenses and Inspections should have “authority to compel compliance” and ensure the involvement of Orphans’ Court. The Historical Commission should provide oversight of removals, and one or more archaeologists should be brought onto the Historical Commission staff, the proposal states.

PAF’s proposal also calls on the city to establish that historical burial grounds are key elements of the city’s legacy, worthy of protection. Further, it says, a database of all known historic cemeteries should be created, and historic burial grounds should be listed on the city register of historic places as “thematic districts” – much like Old City is a geographic historic district.

The proposal was well received by the audience. “You are putting some meat down,” said attorney David R. Morrison.

The forum was convened by PAF, a service organization, in conjunction with the state Historical and Museum Commission, in the wake of an incident on Arch Street in Old City late last winter. Workers digging the foundation for an apartment building in the 200 block unexpectedly uncovered a large number of bones.

Archaeologists dig near recently uncovered remains on the excavation site at the former First Baptist Church burial ground on Arch Street between Second and Third Streets in March. GLENN PERLMAN

The human remains, including coffins, were left over from the old First Baptist Church burial ground, which occupied the site from the beginning of the 18th century, but was supposedly removed in the middle of the 19th century, when the church moved to Broad Street.

As has happened many times before, Mooney noted, all of the graves were not relocated, and in this case a large number remained, until a contractor began digging them up in February.

Police, the city Medical Examiner’s Office, L&I, the Historical Commission, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission all concluded they lacked jurisdiction to direct proper removal of what turned out to be the graves of more than 100 people.

The developer ultimately allowed volunteer archaeologists, organized by the Mütter Institute and Rutgers-Camden, to remove the remains, which are now stored in a variety of locations awaiting final disposition.

Such a helter-skelter approach, which captured the city’s attention, led to the forum. Mooney said more than 200 burial grounds, marked and unmarked, lie beneath the city. Since 1985, there have been at least 20 instances of construction disturbances “that we know about,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if [an unexpected discovery] happens again, but when it happens again.”

Volunteer archaeologists work to exhume bodies at the former First Baptist Church burial ground as a construction company prepares to dig a foundation. (BRIANNA SPAUSE / File Photograph)

Cory Kegerise, a community preservation coordinator with the Historical and Museum Commission, outlined the grab bag of laws related to protection of cemeteries, noting that “there is not always a clear role for the state” in private construction projects, like the Arch Street apartments.

In describing more than a dozen relevant state laws, Kegerise said that even a 1994 law on historic cemetery protection did not give the state clear authority to intervene in a wholly private development project.

Attorney Mark R. Zecca, formerly of the city Law Department but now in private practice, observed that state and city interpretation of the law sometimes hindered protection efforts. He said the courts need to be involved to ensure all parties are protected when a burial ground unexpectedly comes to light.

“We can solve this,” Zecca said.