Ceremony for mass burial Secaucus graveyard’s remains get holy sendoff

In the hours leading up to a special ceremony held last weekend to commemorate the start of the second largest interment project in U.S. history, crews for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority scrambled to get everything ready.

Last month, the state Superior Court approved the Turnpike’s plan to relocate the remains of as many as 3,500 people buried in a three-acre site off New County Road in Secaucus to a cemetery in North Bergen. The ceremony – which included religious leaders representing most of Secaucus’ churches – was to begin the process.

However, Turnpike officials scrambled to get notice out for the event, succeeding in gathering something less than a dozen people, half as many news crews and an assortment of its own workers to witness the event.

Signs posted at several intersections as well as a notice on the town’s bulletin board pointed the way into the remote southern section of town.

To allow people better access to the gravesite itself, the Turnpike cut through a curb it had recently installed and shaped a dirt road to a large white tent. Previously, visitors had to scramble down a muddy embankment to get to the place.

The site held the unmarked graves of thousands of people who were poor or who had died in the county’s institutions (the jail or hospitals) from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. The Turnpike previously had planned to pave over the graves to build a new exit to the Secaucus Transfer train station, arousing protests from some descendants of those believed to be buried there. Now, the graves will be moved to North Bergen.

As they gathered

Last week’s snow had interfered with preparations for the ceremony, said Robert Grim, an engineer for the Turnpike Authority. A heavy snowfall on Feb. 7 had caused the first tent to collapse. Visitors crossing to the new tent passed the enclosed temporary jail that had closed operations in 2000 in anticipation of Hudson County selling the land to the Turnpike for the construction of an exit ramp.

The jail, a series of tan trailers and enclosed courtyards – thick with snow and withered weeds – will temporarily house the remains during the recovery process, said John Keller, chief project engineer for the project.

In the sharply cold air and under crisp sunlight, the jail looked almost new, and certainly foreboding, with its razor wire and 18-foot high fences. It was a sharp contrast to the only other nearby building – a garage-sized brick structure with windows missing and collapsed roof: the caretaker’s house.

“The caretaker’s house is key to this whole project,” explained Joseph Orlando, the official spokesperson for the Turnpike.

Although few people know who exactly is buried in which of the many graves, county maps and registry books place graves in geographic proximity to the caretaker’s house, so that by measuring from the crumbling brick building, the army of up to 40 archeologists (working in groups of two) will be able to locate the grave sites more easily and gently recover the remains.

“If the caretaker’s house had not survived, this might not have been possible,” Orlando said.

The Turnpike Authority, according to Grim, knew about the graveyard for a long time, well before a shovel hit dirt to begin work on the exchange. Partly in reaction to this and because several relatives of deceased stepped forward, the Turnpike hired an archaeologist, osteologist, and mortician to assess the full scope of the potential project, and to develop a plan for removal that would be acceptable to the court – leaving the Turnpike free to continue construction. The Turnpike will pay about $5 million to locate the graves, excavate the remains and transfer them to the Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen for reburial.

Hard to find

The ceremony was at one section of what the Turnpike says are three graveyards in the area where people from various Hudson County institutions and hospitals at Laurel Hill had been buried prior to the closing of the county facilities in 1962.

Until recently, family searches for loved ones had largely gone in vain, partly because record books maintained by Hudson County could not be located. Three volumes containing thousands of names were found last year in county-owned buildings at the Meadowview Hospital Complex further down County Avenue. The volumes list names and marker numbers, although lack of upkeep of the graveyard makes it nearly impossible to locate individuals, especially when it is suspected that more than one person – possibly as many as three people – were buried in each grave. The three leather-bound volumes, however, in conjunction with a county map of the grave area, will allow archeologists to locate the graves.

“These books were about to be thrown out,” said Orlando.

Although all three gravesite areas were used from some time in the mid-19th Century to 1962, Turnpike experts that examined the site said the remains in the area they will address were buried last, from the 1920s to 1962. A sign of some kind will be posted at the graveyard site to direct family members searching for relatives to the North Bergen location.

His long search is ended

Before the ceremony, Gennarro Andriani, 72, hobbled out to the area of the site where he believes his father is buried. He and his son, Patrick, have been looking for the grave of Leonardo Andriani for more than 20 years.

“I came out here back when the jail was still being used as a jail,” said Gennarro Andriani, a carpenter who lives in Central Jersey.

During his last visit, he was among those who hammered in a cross above the space where he believes his father’s remains might be found.

According a death certificate family members showed the court, Leonardo Andriani was listed among those buried in a plot that county records show contain another man’s remains, although it is possible both men occupy the same grave.

Orlando acknowledged the concern of the family members to find the remains of their relatives.

“It is an extremely sensitive issue,” he admitted. “We’re dealing with a lot emotions.”

Orlando said that miscommunication may have helped confuse issues early on in the process.

“But we’re all on the same page now, and we all want to do the right thing,” he said. “We understand how the Andriani family must feel, and how frustrated they must be dealing with bureaucracies in the county for 20 years. But the Turnpike is not a bureaucracy, and we were very touched by their situation.”

Gennarro Andriani was still in Italy when news came of his father’s death on Dec. 24, 1948.

Leonardo Andriani had arrived from Molfetta, Italy, in the early 1920s, intending to raise money and return to Italy, a reason why he did not bring the rest of his family to America. During a particularly bad snowstorm, Leonardo fell ill and was eventually brought to one of the county hospitals at Laurel Hill, where he eventually died. When Gennarro arrived in America in 1953, he could get little information about his father’s gravesite. In the late 1970s, Leonardo’s son Patrick took up the cause and began a search that took several decades, ending finally here.

Young Leonard Andriani – the grandson named after Leonardo – called it a long search concluded, and said his father had come here often seeking Leonardo.

“This is the second largest interment in U.S. history,” Orlando said, noting that the Turnpike officials believe the largest was done near the St. Louis Airport

Keller, the project engineer, said teams of archeologists would begin the project very shortly, working in tents in teams of two. The project could see as many as 40 architects working at one time, seeking to complete the transition by the end of the summer.

“We might start with 10, but it will grow once we get going,” he said. “Our people will be working inside enclosed shelters, and using the jail trailers to temporarily store the remains. The remains will be boxed, numbered and transported.”

Work, according to County Engineer Bob Jasek, started this past Tuesday, two days after the ceremony.

The Turnpike exit will serve the new Secaucus Transfer train station. The station is expected to begin operations as early as September 2003. Keller said temporary ramps and other arrangements will be made for traffic until the Turnpike finishes its own exit here.

Prayers for those who move on

No local or county officials were present at the ceremony, except for Former Secaucus Mayor Anthony Just, one of the outspoken critics of Hudson County’s treatment of the graveyard. Just knew several people buried at the site, and called the situation “a terrible shame.”

“This is politics,” he said. “It is very, very sad that this county’s poorest of the poor should be treated this way. These people were abandoned here.”

Just was among the dozen people who sat quietly through the 15-minute service as four religious leaders read short passages from scripture.

“All of us are dust already,” Rev. Mark Lewis of the Church of our Saviour quoted as a jet bound for Newark airport rumbled in the sky overhead.

Msgr. Donald E. Guenther of Immaculate Conception Church said, “These vessels may be lost, but the treasure in them is not lost. God is our only hope in the face of death.”

“Each generation will rise and pass away,” said Rev. William Moser, of St. Matthews Lutheran Church, his voice competing with truck traffic along the nearby Turnpike.

“Our final resting place is not our final resting place,” said Rev. Will Henkel of the First Reform Church. “While we may make this lateral move of these remains, God will move them vertically some day.”

Janet Frueh, one of those who came to witness the service, remembered traveling to the nursing home at Laurel Hill when she was a small girl, to bring the elderly gifts. Often groups of Scouts went to the facilities located at the south end of Secaucus to help bring comfort to the people living there.

“Some of those people were poor and had no one else to visit them,” she recalled.

Mayor Dennis Elwell, who had a previous family engagement out of state, reflected on the situation, and praised the efforts of the Turnpike Authority, county officials, family members and the court for finding a solution.

“I think it is wonderful thing that people who have been looking for closure have a place to go and reflect on their ancestors,” he said. “The families will be able to go to a place they can get to without stomping through weeds. I do not believe that the remains are in a proper place [in the Secaucus site] now. It is as if those remains were thrown into a dump and forgotten.”

Elwell complimented the Turnpike Authority for bearing the cost of the move, despite the pressures to continue with the project.

“I think the judge made a wise decision, and though I know everybody won’t be completely happy, no choice would have been perfect, and this is better than what existed,” Elwell said. “It is good to see that common sense prevailed. These accommodations should have been made years ago. That would have avoided this distressing situation.”

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