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372 anonymous dead from county almshouse get final resting place

The remains of hundreds of men, women and children exhumed in 2012 to make way for a University at Buffalo construction project now rest in peace in the ground again.

UB's Newman Center hosted an emotional service on Wednesday in memory of the 372 people who died more than a century ago and were buried originally at the former Erie County Almshouse cemetery, on grounds that are now part of UB's South Campus.

Police then led a procession of hearses past the site of the original burial and onto the new destination, Assumption Cemetery on Grand Island, where eight caskets carrying the remains were tucked into concrete vaults and buried in four plots.

"Welcome them at last after their stormy ride," Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher said moments before the remains were lowered back into the earth.

UB anthropologists spent nearly five years studying the remains in an effort to determine the identities of the dead. While unable to match names to bones, researchers said they learned a lot about the people buried in the poorhouse cemetery between 1851 and 1913.

About 50 people attended the service, which had the mournful feel of a traditional funeral. Cold drizzle pelted pall bearers as they hoisted caskets into hearses. A bagpipe echoed with ache. For some, tears flowed.

Anthropology professor Joyce E. Sirianni said it was difficult not to have bonded with the deceased, with or without their exact identities.

"They are individuals. We tried to understand their stories by reading their bones," said Sirianni, who oversaw much of the bone analysis research. "When you spent that much time with bones, they're no longer just a pile of bones. They are individuals and they have character. You just know them."

Four doctoral students at UB even wrote their dissertations on their studies of the bones.

372 nameless dead, exhumed in 2012, are headed back to the grave

Construction crews first began uncovering grave sites on the South Campus in 2008. More remains were found in 2012. UB officials, looking to proceed with the infrastructure improvements, received a court order allowing for the exhumation by a team of trained UB archaeologists and physical anthropologists.

Coffins made of hemlock and crafted on site at the poorhouse were used to hold the deceased back in the 1800s, and anthropologists toiling under the hot sun sifted through the crumbled containers and mud to uncover skeletal remains and bone fragments as small as a dime.

When they went back in the earth, the remains were individually numbered, sealed in separate non-biodegradable pouches and placed in one of eight decorated caskets of 20-gauge steel.

Sirianni, who also is a Presbyterian minister, officiated at the service along with Keleher.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Memorial service]

She read a passage from the Book of Ezekiel known as "The Valley of Dry Bones" before making her remarks. She gestured on occasion to the caskets, each one topped with a single flower.

"My dear friends, we've tried our very best. We've tried and we've listened to your stories. And I promise, we will continue to tell your stories. You've become part of our very being, every one of you," she said. "You have taught us that circumstances beyond our control can change the quality of our lives forever. For that insight we are grateful."

The discovery of poorhouse cemeteries is becoming more common across the country, as communities reuse former poorhouse sites and make infrastructure upgrades.

"It's actually a pretty pervasive problem. It's not a unique circumstance," said Douglas Perrelli, UB clinical assistant professor of anthropology who supervised the South Campus excavation.

Researchers estimate as many as 3,000 more graves may exist on the South Campus. Assumption Cemetery, which donated the burial plots, has agreed to donate up to 50 plots, if future construction at UB leads to the discovery of more poorhouse remains.

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