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UB to reinter, memorialize remains uncovered from former county poorhouse cemetery

This monument marks the site in Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island where the remains of the deceased will be reinterred. Photo: Dan Vivian.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published October 9, 2017

“These are the people who helped build Buffalo. We understand through this work who [they] were and have a cross-section of life in Buffalo in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries.”
Joyce Sirianni, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor
Department of Anthropology

UB will hold a reinterment ceremony at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the UB Newman Center to commemorate the lives of 372 people buried between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries on the grounds of the former Erie County Poorhouse cemetery, situated along Bailey Avenue near the edge of what is today the university’s South Campus.

A funeral procession will leave the Newman Center, 495 Skinnersville Road, Amherst, at the conclusion of the ceremony and proceed directly to a private committal service at 1 p.m. at Assumption Cemetery in Grand Island.

The non-denominational ceremony and service 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 restore 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.  

Doug Perrelli, clinical assistant professor and director of UB’s nonprofit Archaeological Survey (a contracting and applied archaeological institution within the university’s Department of Anthropology) and Joyce E. Sirianni, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, both faculty members in UB’s Department of Anthropology, have served as co-directors of the project to respectfully disinter the human remains and assure the complete removal of all individuals from the construction area; maintain separation of the remains from each burial location; and provide public outreach, from student engagement to new courses, book chapters and symposiums.

A researcher works with the remains. Photo: University at Buffalo.

“This project is a dramatic testimonial to how much learning has been provided,” Perrelli says. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity to interact with, to learn from and to produce good research that’s publicly available.”

Work from the project provided biological profiles of the deceased, such as age, gender and ancestry. It included skeletal analysis, demographics, recorded causes of death and disease identification.

The work started after the initial discovery of human remains in 2008.

With additional improvements planned for 2012 in that same area of Bailey Avenue, UB decided archaeologists and physical anthropologists would be on site around the clock monitoring work as construction there continued.

James Hartner, senior research support specialist for UB’s Archaeological Survey, supervised all activity at the site so that any additional discoveries of human remains would be treated respectfully and under scientifically controlled conditions that strived to recover even the smallest possible bone fragment, right down to saving some of the soil on the chance that it might contain human remains, according to Sirianni.

“Every aspect of this project exceeded the highest ethical standards established by the Society for American Archaeology,” Perrelli says.

The university is committed to adhering to the standards set by this project and to future reinterment at Assumption Cemetery should other remains be discovered in that area of the campus.

In addition to the work of Perrelli, Sirianni and Hartner, other UB participants include Peter Biehl, chair of the anthropology department; Jennifer Byrnes, Kevin Knowles, Melanie Mayberry and Jennifer Odien, all of whom received PhDs in anthropology from UB based on research from this project; UB graduate students Erin Chapman and Kimberly Hanzlian; and Dan Vivian, assistant vice president for procurement.

Rosanne Higgins, adjunct research professor, provided expertise on historical documentation; Jennifer Liber Raines, genealogical and historical researcher, assisted in guiding the project’s understanding of the Erie County Poorhouse; and Jennifer Muller, an associate professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Anthropology, was involved with skeletal analysis.

“This work was done in the context of Buffalo and we have new insights into the city’s history,” Sirianni says. “We understand through this work who these people were and have a cross-section of life in Buffalo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These are the people who helped build Buffalo, and though the poorhouse provided relief mainly for the poor, many of the residents were middle class.

“All you had to do was lose your job.”

For nine years, Doug Perrelli and Joyce Sirianni, both Department of Anthropology faculty members, led efforts to restore the dignity and individuality of 372 people buried between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries on the grounds of the former poorhouse. Photo: Meredith Forrest-Kulwicki.

Community members provide expertise and support

An example of the remains found at the site of the former Erie County Poorhouse cemetery along Bailey Avenue near the edge of the South Campus. Image: University at Buffalo.

The university’s plans for reinterment drew from the expertise of a community team comprised of members from the Erie Niagara Funeral Directors Association (ENFDA), including Gerald Gentile, the organization’s president-elect; Gabriel Johnson, secretary-treasurer; John Latimore; board members John Kaczor and Fred Hamp; and past presidents Larry Ginnane and Michael Cushman.

In addition to those from the ENFDA, Tom Koch, Stone Art Memorial; Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Buffalo and its representatives Carmen Colao, director of Catholic Cemeteries and Frank Enders, supervisor of grounds; Richard Wedekindt, retired funeral director; the Wilbert Vault Company; and the New York State Division of Cemeteries all provided valuable insight, counsel and assistance to help guide the project to its successful conclusion.

“The university gratefully acknowledges the support and guidance provided by this dedicated assembly of community partners, many of whom have generously donated their time and services to this effort,” says Laura Hubbard, UB vice president for finance and administration. “Their experience and compassion, along with the expertise of our faculty and the commitment from their students, have allowed us to honor the memories of the deceased.”

The coordinated effort has established a dignified and compassionate approach for a respectful and appropriate reinterment process that honors the memories of not only those buried in the poorhouse cemetery, but for countless others in forgotten burial sites being unearthed around the country in towns, cities and other colleges and universities with ever-greater frequency by expanding development and infrastructure improvements.

“When we started this project I thought this was a rare occurrence, but it’s happening everywhere as cities move into what once was the hinterlands,” says Perrelli. “It’s a pervasive challenge; there’s no funding for it and people are reaching out to institutions that have encountered this for advice on possible solutions.

“A group in the Midwest has already contacted me. They’ll be excavating near a small poorhouse. They heard about our project and wanted to know what we did.”

A labor of science and love

In the case at UB, that the discovery happened on the site of a major research university meant the immediate availability of professionals with training in archaeology, anthropology, anatomy and osteology to proceed as a scientific endeavor while also honoring the duty owed to the people buried there.

“This was an opportunity to interact, to learn and to produce good research. Look at the masters’ degrees, the PhDs, the courses that have been taught, book chapters, symposia and museum presentations that have come about as a result of this project,” Perrelli says. “The process of research, excavation, analysis and reburial has resulted in the training and education of so many students, and reached so many in the local community.

“Our expertise permitted us to deal with this situation in a way that maximized the good that comes from it by honoring the deceased and developing research that’s available in the public domain,” he says.

A researcher works with the remains in a lab. Photo: University at Buffalo

“This was definitely a labor of science and a labor of love.”

Perrelli and Sirianni say their first duty was returning to the deceased their identities, which the poorhouse’s inadequate record-keeping failed to preserve.

That system relied on a simple progression of numbers on wooden markers to identify specific gravesites. Administrators recorded those numbers in ledger books, but year after year reused the same numbers as they removed markers each winter when frozen ground prevented burials.

The various states of decay further complicated identification efforts. There were a few fully articulated skeletons, but in other instances researchers found only an isolated bone fragment, some as small as a coin.

“We needed time to give them identity,” says Sirianni, who is also the pastor of Faith United Presbyterian Church in Kenmore.

Sirianni will preside over both the memorial ceremony and the committal service at Assumption Cemetery with Rev. Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, director and campus minister for the UB Newman Center.

“Right from the very beginning, identity was the goal, and that goes for the archaeological excavation, the anatomical, historical and documentary research. It was a long process,” Sirianni says. “After collecting all the data, we would come back and stand around the person and I would say, ‘This was an individual. What do we know about his or her life based on our research?

“Give us his life or her life.’”

In the end, however, placing names back in association with the physical remains was not possible. The researchers worked in hopes of finding a Rosetta Stone that could help them match names in ledger books to burial patterns that emerged from the site.

“We extrapolated their lifestyle and job occupational conditions based on marks that were left on the skeletons, all in an attempt to identify who they were, but we don’t have maps of where people were buried and without total information we never knew where we were in the puzzle,” says Perrelli. “The management of the cemetery was such — and this was the norm for the day — that no such pattern would develop.  

“We tried, but we don’t know their names.”

But the researchers did restore the individuality of each of the deceased and were able to determine gender, ancestry, what diseases or traumas the deceased may have suffered, their cause of death, even religious affiliations in some cases, based on recovered artifacts.

To maintain that individuality, the remains have been placed in separate burial pouches with stainless steel identification and laid to rest in eight coffins.

“We have learned so much in so many different areas, from archaeology to biological anthropology and the study of skeletal trauma, to the documentary research and the wealth of information learned about the poorhouse and the people who lived and worked there, and more broadly about the history of our state, county, city and suburbs, says Perrelli.”

Stone Art Memorial donated the monument that 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.

The university will install a separate monument at a later date that will memorialize the original location of the poorhouse cemetery on the South Campus.

“We have recovered all of the remains uncovered as result of this construction project. We have documentation. We have photographs. It’s meticulous research and it’s all available for further study,” says Sirianni.

Adds Perrelli: “Because of this work, these people are in some sense able to live on. The individuals disinterred have made a contribution to science and culture in a way they could never have contemplated.”

READER COMMENT

Fascinating work and meticulously done. It seems as if these individuals were given more respect in death than in life. To the entire team: Well done! 

 

Eileen Kasperek