Grave Errors In Queens: Contractor Disturbs Quaker Cemetary

It can be hard to know where all the bodies are buried in New York (Washington Square Park, Bryant Park and Madison Square Park are just a few of the city’s re-purposed resting places).

Potter’s fields rarely fare well over time (regardless of the surrounding real estate’s desirability), but many of the city’s historic cemeteries have been well-loved—watched over by attentive congregations, descendants and preservationists (see: the Trinity Church graveyard in lower Manhattan).

Unfortunately, even the most attentive caretakers cannot always protect the dead from development, or an errant backhoe.

The Times reports that historic Quaker graves dating back to the 1600s may have been desecrated by contractors working on a new medical office building behind the congregation’s Flushing Avenue meeting house.

The Quakers claim that workers pushed a utility pole into the back of the Queens graveyard, damaged old trees and, worst of all,  put up a plywood fence among the graves.

In adherence to a Quaker tradition at the time urging humility, many of the graveyard’s earliest plots lack headstones. And, as in many historic graveyards, the older graves were located in the back of the burial yard. The grave of John Bowne, the influential Quaker leader who founded the congregation’s meeting house, may even be among the disturbed.

Pinnacle Engineering P.C., the company constructing the office building, agreed to stop work after the Landmarks Preservation Commission threatened to impose a hefty daily fine.

“If we saw anything, if we found any bones or anything like that, we would have stopped the operation,” project manager Arnold Matthew told The Times. “I’m not aware of any desecration that occurred.”

Mr. Matthew also claimed that an archaeological survey conducted at the site before construction indicated that it was safe to proceed and that a non-invasion method was used to stabilize the Quaker property during construction.

But ground, and the graves in it, have been known to shift over time.

Technologies exist to help contractors avoid this kind of problem. Ground-penetrating radar, which looks for abnormalities in the density of the earth, is often used by archaeologists to determine unmarked burial sites (and by detectives searching for homicide victims).

Also, it’s generally a good idea to be really really careful when you’re building next to a burial ground that’s hundreds of  years old! Construction projects sometimes uncover unknown or unconfirmed burial sites that have been paved, built and even landfilled over—like the African Burial Ground, uncovered in 1991 during excavation work for a federal office building—but it’s another story when you know there are bodies nearby.

And Pinnacle admitted to The Times that the site’s wooden wall was in fact on Quaker property. In the graveyard.

At most construction sites, infringing on a neighbor’s property might get you a nasty letter. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from countless scary movies and books, it’s that you don’t mess with a grave.

kvelsey@observer.com