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Update, July 25, 9:30 a.m.: According to Newsworks, Judge Matthew Carrafiello told PMC Property Group it had 10 days to come up with a better plan for excavating, moving and reinterring the human remains from the Old City property and recommended it work with former city attorney Mark Zecca. Meanwhile, officials from Philadelphia and the state insisted they didn’t need to be involved.
Three times since last year, construction crews dug up the dirt at a project at 218 Arch St. and hit a surprise: Dozens of hundred-year-old dead bodies and coffins. These were the remains of the First Baptist Church burial ground.
And like the zombie that just won’t quit, this saga still won’t end. It’s now going to court.
Today, the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court has granted a hearing to PMC, the property group in charge of the site. PMC has asked the court for permission to remove and transport any remains for study at Rutgers University, with help from the engineering firm AECOM, which has an archaeology group. PMC is doing so after being prodded by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.
The filing states that before construction began, PMC had no idea any remains were on the site and still doesn’t know how many could be there (hundreds of gravesites have been found so far). PMC has incurred delays and costs because of the findings, according to the filing.
In the last several months, archaeologists and preservationists have expressed dismay at the situation. The end point, if the request is granted by the judge, could be acceptable. The problem has been the process.
Philadelphia and Pennsylvania lack distinct rules for developers who could be interfering with old gravesites. Since the late 19th century, at least 71 cemeteries have been disturbed in Philadelphia.
“I sometimes say if you put in a shovel in the ground in Philly,” Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section told Billy Penn earlier this year, “you should expect to find a human skeleton.”
Other states have databases showcasing sites of old burial grounds. Some of them also have designated steps builders must follow before beginning construction and a set of penalties ready to be applied if the process isn’t followed correctly.
Even this PMC court petition could be lacking, notes Mark Zecca, a former city attorney who spoke at a forum regarding this issue in June. The judge has questioned why the city and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office were not made parties as part of the petition. Neither were Rutgers University or the Mutter Museum, which set up a crowdfunding effort so it could reinter remains from the 218 Arch site.
“They ought to notify the appropriate parties and identify the cemetery where they’d put them,” Zecca said. “Otherwise it could be left hanging, and the bodies could be orphaned in Orphans’ Court.”