Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery
Published October 11, 2017
Excavations and construction on UB South Campus have periodically uncovered skeletal remains and remnants of wooden coffins. Historians believe that these were the result of burials of residents of the Erie County Poor House, which operated on the site of UB’s South Campus from 1851-1913.
In 2012, UB sought and obtained a court order that gave the university authority to exhume remains uncovered during construction projects. The order also granted UB the authority to analyze the exhumations in accordance with prevailing practices and ethical treatment of the remains for research and historical purposes. Under this order, UB has the legal authority to store and reinter the remains in a cemetery.
Exhumation and storage of remains was overseen by faculty from UB’s Department of Anthropology and was conducted in keeping with the standards of professional scientific inquiry and in accordance with the court order.
Remains had been discovered in a concentrated area on the western side of the South Campus centered on Michael Road. The remains mainly consist of skeletal fragments, bits of burial clothing and wood from coffins.
UB’s researchers estimate that at least 3,000 individuals were buried at the site.
On Oct 11, 2017, the university reinterred the remains of 372 individuals at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island after a non-denominational reinterment ceremony and committal service.
Meaningful research on Western New York history
Since the remains were discovered in 2008 and 2012, a research team from the UB Department of Anthropology had conducted extensive research to tell the story of these individuals and create a picture of what life was like for them in Buffalo during a period in the two previous centuries. The Department of Anthropology also sought to locate the boundaries of the cemetery to determine the identity and number of individuals who were buried there through archival and anthropological research.
It’s important to note that specific identities were not able to be denoted, but that scientific analysis and documentary research have yielded descriptions of gender, age and ethnic origin.
This analysis, conducted by physical anthropologists under the leadership of Distinguished Teaching Professor Joyce Sirianni, provided important insight on the health and morbidity of a specific population: Western New Yorkers living in poverty in the 19th and early 20 centuries.
The project had given UB students the opportunity to conduct meaningful research that adds significant information to the historical knowledge we have about our local community.
Under the leadership of UB archaeologist Douglas Perrelli and UB physical anthropologist Joyce Sirianni the findings of this research has been presented at research conferences nationwide and is available to the general public.
UB’s archaeological fieldwork ended in September 2012, with no further discoveries of human skeletal remains associated with the current construction project since that time.
Respectful treatment of the remains
The University at Buffalo held a non-denominational reinterment ceremony and committal service on Wednesday, Oct. 11, at 11 a.m. at the UB Newman Center, 495 Skinnersville Rd., Amherst.
The ceremony and service, officiated by Rev. Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, Director and Campus Minister for the Newman Center and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Joyce E. Sirianni, Pastor of Faith United Presbyterian Church, commemorated the lives of 372 people buried between the mid-19 and early-20 centuries on the grounds of the former Erie County Poorhouse cemetery, near the edge of what today is the university’s South Campus.
University remarks were given by Laura E. Hubbard, vice president for finance and administration.
A funeral precession left the Newman Center at the conclusion of the ceremony and proceeded directly to a committal service at 1 p.m. at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island.
The October 11th events at the Newman Center and on the grounds of Assumption represent the culmination of approximately nine years of devoted work at the confluence of dedicated science and compassionate humanity by UB researchers and several community partners that began after construction crews discovered the first of the poorhouse’s 372 gravesites, uncovered during a Bailey Avenue lighting project in 2008 and again in 2012.
Their meticulous and respectful efforts restores the dignity and individuality of the deceased that had been previously lost amidst a forgotten history and allows for the remains to now be moved to a permanent resting place on hallowed ground.
Any remains uncovered during future South Campus construction projects will be reinterred at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island; all remains will be treated properly and respectfully, and will be memorialized for posterity. A monument marks the reinterred location for the deceased with the following inscription:
In respectful memory of the men, women and children of the Erie County Poorhouse 1851-1913. A temporary shelter for some, a much needed home for others. The remains of the deceased in the former poorhouse cemetery were moved to this site from the grounds of what is now the University at Buffalo South Campus. May this permanent resting place bring the peace they sought in life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What authority does the university have to exhume, store and reinter the remains?
- In 2012, UB sought and obtained a court order that gave the university authority to exhume remains uncovered during construction projects. The order also granted UB the authority to analyze the exhumations in accordance with prevailing practices and ethical treatment of the remains for research and historical purposes. Under this order, UB has the legal authority to store and reinter the remains in a cemetery.
- Exhumation and storage of the remains was overseen by faculty from UB’s Department of Anthropology and was conducted in keeping with the standards of professional scientific inquiry and in accordance with the court order.
Why did years pass before the deceased were reinterred?
- Identifying the deceased was the university’s primary goal from the time the remains were discovered in 2008 and again in 2012. That identification process was incredibly time consuming. The research team worked tirelessly on identification, but in the end were unable to place names back in association with the remains.
- The researchers were able to determine gender, ancestry, what diseases or traumas the deceased may have suffered, their age and cause of death, even religious affiliations in some cases, based on recovered artifacts.
Could DNA analysis have helped with identification?
- The researchers did use non-destructive mitochondrial DNA analysis to help determine ancestry, but DNA analysis has limitations. Even having a DNA sample from a surviving relative is not enough. DNA samples from all the deceased would have been needed to find the one person most closely associated with the sample from a living donor. It would take years for just one step in that process to unfold.
Why were the remains moved to a different location? Could they have been reinterred on university land?
- Many options were discussed before a determination was made that the most respectful course of action was to reinter the remains on the sacred grounds of an existing cemetery. There are plans to later memorialize the original location of the cemetery with a South Campus monument.
- Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island was chosen because of its proximity to the university (within 10 miles) and because it has capacity to bury the current group of remains, as well as the remains that may be unearthed during future excavations at UB’s South Campus over the next several decades.
What is the nature of the remains that are being reinterred?
- There are a few fully articulated skeletons, but in other instances researchers found only an isolated bone fragment, some as small as a coin.
- The deceased were exhumed as individuals and they are being reinterred the same way. In many cases, the remains of individuals are composed of a small amount of bones or fragments of bones. Individual remains are sealed in separate burial pouches each marked with stainless steel identification and placed in one of the eight coffins.
Assumption Cemetery is a Catholic Cemetery. Why was it selected? How was faith tradition determined?
- Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island was chosen by the university and its community partners because it has capacity to bury the current group of remains as well as remains that may be unearthed during future excavations at UB’s South Campus over the next several decades. The university also wanted to choose a cemetery that was close, within 10 miles, to the original burial location on the South Campus.
- Although researchers believe most of the deceased were Catholic based on religious artifacts found in the coffins, that Assumption is a Catholic cemetery was not the determining factor in its selection as a reinterment site.
- Catholic Cemeteries of Buffalo generously offered to work with the university and Assumption had the capacity to accommodate the needs of reinterment. It’s also worth noting that Catholic Cemeteries serve non-Catholics as well as Catholics.
Are there additional grave sites on campus that are yet to be exhumed?
- Yes, UB’s researchers estimate that an additional 3,000 individuals could be buried in the former poorhouse cemetery on what is now UB’s South Campus.
- When more remains are excavated at the university, they will be reinterred at Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island.
- A court order gives the university authority to exhume remains uncovered during construction projects and reinter the remains in a cemetery.
Has UB and its community partners established a reinterment model for others to follow?
- Gravesites around the country are being unearthed by development and there is little guidance and no funding for this problem. UB has established respectful reinterment procedures that preserve the dignity of the deceased. In fact, another group has already contacted the university to discuss how UB addressed reinterment.
- The combined efforts of university researchers and its community partners have from the beginning established a respectful and dignified process addressing exhumation and reinterment. The expertise of UB’s community partners played a very important role in the reinterment process. UB’s community partners included members from the Erie Niagara Funeral Directors Association, Stone Art Memorial; Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Buffalo; the Wilbert Vault Company; and the New York State Division of Cemeteries.
Why did the university in the early 20th century build near a former cemetery?
- At the turn of the 20th century, institutions simply did not possess the sensitivity to these issues that we possess now. As a society, we’re now much more sensitive to the immense importance of respecting and honoring our ancestors, preserving their histories and learning from them.
- That is why the university has now taken such elaborate steps to research who these people were, respectfully honor them and provide them a dignified final burial place.