Judge wants to know what developer intends to do with Arch Street bones

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PMC Properties, which is continuing to dig up tangles of old bones and coffins while excavating a construction site at 218 Arch St., has been directed by Orphans’ Court to come up with a clear plan for removal and reinterment of the human remains, apparently left over from an old churchyard.

On Monday afternoon, Orphans’ Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello told PMC attorney Courtney L. Schultz, of Saul Ewing LLP, that a precise account of what to do with the Arch Street bones should be in his hands within 10 days.

“I want to know how this is going to play out,” Carrafiello said. “One of the jurisdictions of this court is dead bodies, and dead bodies should stay buried.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Bones excavated on Arch Street await photographic documentation at the Science Building of Rutgers-Camden in March. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

The hearing in a City Hall courtroom was called after PMC sought Orphans’ Court permission to remove a continuing stream of human remains it has discovered in the course of excavation on land once occupied by the burial ground for the First Baptist Church, established at the turn of the 18th century.

The church, once located off Second Street, moved to Broad Street in the mid-19th century, and its burial ground was supposedly excavated and removed to Mount Moriah Cemetery around 1860. Gravediggers apparently missed quite a few coffins.

PMC first began unearthing remains last fall, according to testimony by Jonathan Stavin, PMC executive vice president. In February, coffins and bones came tumbling out of the ground and PMC allowed volunteer archaeologists organized by the Mütter Institute and Rutgers-Camden to excavate more than 100 bodies in a race with earth-moving equipment, he said.

But bones continued to turn up, with many appearing this summer. Last month, the city informally asked PMC to bring in an archaeologist to monitor construction, which the developer agreed to do.

According to the petition for an emergency hearing filed by PMC with the court last week, the archaeologist “conducted a brief site visit where it identified several partially exposed in situ coffins within the disturbed portion of the site.”

Stavin testified that “nobody has any idea how many bodies are there.”

The company wants to take the bones to a storage and research site at Rutgers-Camden and then, eventually, rebury them at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Attorney Mark Zecca, acting as an informal representative for the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a service organization, called PMC’s plans for the site “woefully inadequate.”

Camera icon Glenn Perlman

Archaeologists dig near recently uncovered skeletal remains on the excavation site of the First Baptist Church burial ground on Arch Street in March. (Glenn Perlman)

Zecca said that the court should have been involved in overseeing removals from the beginning and that any plan should cover all bones recovered, not simply those dug up going forward.

Lawyers from the city and the state argued that they had no particular legal involvement in the matter — the development and the land are private, and the site is no longer considered a burial ground. Neither objected to PMC’s plan for removal of the bones to New Jersey and reinterment in Southwest Philadelphia.

“This court thinks it’s incumbent upon the city and the state to take responsibility … for citizens that can’t speak up for themselves,” Carrafiello said, adding that his role was to see that what happens is in “the best interest” of the dead.

In a related matter, some bodies excavated in February and March and stored by PMC are apparently missing. The bones were moved from Philadelphia storage sites to Rutgers-Camden last month.

Kimberlee Sue Moran, a forensic archaeologist at Rutgers-Camden, said an inventory is continuing. As many as 15 bodies may be missing, she said.

Stavin, of PMC, said he had no comment on any aspect of the matter.

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