How Philly could fix its construction-crews-disturbing-dead-bodies problem

Archeologists say Pennsylvania needs to reform “terrible” — or write new — laws.

Flickr via Ryan Schreiber

When developers of a new apartment building at Second and Arch streets uncovered dozens of dead bodies from an old cemetery in March, the story became major news. Those involved with the construction expressed shock and, without any guidelines to follow, invited archaeologists on site to study the bodies for a couple of days.

But it wasn’t the first time dead bodies have been unearthed in Philly and nobody knew how to regulate the situation or possibly levy punishment. Not by a long shot. And that’s what Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, and other Philly archaeologists and preservations want to get across.

“The city of Philadelphia is really a city built on top of graveyards,” Mooney said. “It’s really surprising given the frequency with which this happens why isn’t there a process.”

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission hosted a forum on the problem and possible ways of fixing it. They hope it will be the first of many conversations and would particularly like city leaders to listen. Because as mentioned above, dead bodies have been disturbed in Philadelphia dozens of times.

By Mooney’s count, using archival data, 71 cemeteries have been impacted by construction since the late 19th century. Since 1985 alone, the number is about 20. Private developers are mostly guilty of disturbing the dead, but they’re not the only ones. The National Constitution Center affected the Second Presbyterian Church’s cemetery during its construction in the early 2000s. People at individual residences have done the same, like a time when 20-plus graves were found during a basement renovation at 12th and Carpenter.

These burial grounds are often not hidden. Several publicly available historic maps show locations of old Philadelphia cemeteries.

Yet the groups that build in Philadelphia have little to no motivation to seek the maps because there are no set guidelines for them to follow and they face no recrimination. Most laws dealing with Pennsylvania burial grounds were enacted between the middle of the 19th century and the early 20th century.

“We have terrible laws in Pennsylvania,” Mooney said. “They just don’t have any real applicability anymore.”

The laws here differ from many states that also have a massive amount of old cemeteries, such as Virginia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, there’s a database of burial grounds that needs to be consulted before construction, required authorization from certain groups and a set of penalties for failure to comply with these steps.

Mooney and his colleague Jed Levin, as well as Cory Kegerise of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, released a set of guidelines for what they think Philadelphia should do to better regulate construction on old burial sites. These would include establishing a database and clear oversight and accountability roles for city agencies. L&I or a similar agency, Mooney suggested, could have the authority to regulate.

“I firmly believe that in our city we do have the authority to pass whatever laws we need,” said Mark Zecca, a former city attorney. “We can solve this problem here in Philly.”

More than anything, Mooney and others want to get across that this really is a problem, to let people know that whenever the next time dead bodies from an old cemetery pop up at a construction site it’s not the first time.

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