Why old dead bodies will accidentally surface in Philadelphia again

Put in a shovel in the ground here, and “you should expect to find a human skeleton.”

Flickr via Ryan Schreiber

Construction crews digging for a new building near Second and Arch Streets uncovered hundreds of dead bodies and coffins Thursday — surprise!


Well, probably not. In Philadelphia, which has been developed for three-plus centuries, experts contend dead bodies are likely buried throughout the city, hidden under our buildings and houses.

“I sometimes say if you put in a shovel in the ground” in Philly, said Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section, “you should expect to find a human skeleton.”

That line is a joke, but only to an extent. She does suspect bodies, whether disintegrated or intact, are spread all over the city. It’s a matter of Philly’s age and the practices of burying the dead.

For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, dead people were buried in family plots near farms and houses or in churchyards. Monge, for instance, lives on property that used to be part of a farm in South Philadelphia, and she’s sure on burial plot associated with the farm is located somewhere. Ed Mauger, a historian and author of Lost Philadelphia, said that given Philly’s early adoption of religious freedom many churches were built and later closed, moved or consolidated, leaving graveyards behind.

“There are a lot of bodies unaccounted for and probably a lot of bones,” Mauger said, “especially in Old City.”

For the most part, we’ll never see these bodies, even when digging foundations. The centuries-long progress of building over other structures in cities as old as Philadelphia means the bodies buried a few feet underground in the 1700s are now dozens of feet below us. The other reason is decomposition. Monge said Philadelphia’s soil isn’t ideal for preservation, and many skeletal remains and coffins have decomposed.

The discovery at Second and Arch was the unusual case of a deep dig and relatively preserved bodies. Last fall, PMC Property Group, which is developing the property, discovered other remains. It also had knowledge that the plot of land was used for a burial plot.

Wade Catts, associate director of the cultural resources department for the Commonwealth Heritage Group, said the developers should have approached their project with more care knowing a burial ground could have been positioned where they were building.

“This is not an unusual situation,” Catts said. “These kinds of things slip through various state and city laws. A city like Philadelphia should care about its history. Cemeteries are certainly part of that.”

Monge said, “You would think a city like Philadelphia would have good plans about this kind of thing.”

Catts would like better regulations requiring checking for burial grounds before the building process and then a more official way for finding solutions to situations like the one on 2nd and Arch. Developers there have let archaeologists on the site until Saturday, allowing them to examine the bodies before they’re reinterred at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Catts said the city should do GIS overlay of all existing historic maps, which would give locations of many old churches and graveyards. To know where the bodies are buried, in part, all one needs to do is look at those maps.

“It’s a preservation and planning issue,” Catts said. “Once you do it then everybody knows what to be concerned about.”

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