By Ronnie Cohen
FAIRFAX, California (Reuters) - A judge on Friday is to consider the fate of dozens of paupers' graves unearthed by construction crews beneath the parking lot of a California hospital, apparently part of a long-forgotten cemetery established for indigent patients.
Construction workers initially discovered 15 plain, uniformly spaced pine coffins in February, but the entire site, located in San Jose, may contain as many as 1,445 graves in all, said Joy Alexiou, a Santa Clara Valley Medical Center spokeswoman.
The decaying caskets likely contain the remains of poor patients who died between 1875, when the hospital was built, and 1940, said Michael Rossi, deputy Santa Clara County counsel.
"We don't know what's in these 15 deteriorating wooden boxes," Rossi told Reuters. "We know it's a potter's field because there are no markers."
Rossi has filed a petition in Superior Court seeking permission to remove 100 of the coffins, which are in the way of the hospital's construction project, and cremate the remains.
The other estimated 1,345 coffins would remain buried beneath roads and parking lots in the vicinity, Alexiou said.
Rossi located the potter's field on a 1932 hospital map. But the graveyard fails to appear on a 1959 hospital master plan or a 1966 hospital site survey, the petition says. It says the cemetery appears to have been paved over or covered with gravel for an employee parking lot in the late 1950s.
Rossi said he was unable to find any records identifying the people buried in the graveyard.
Judge Paul Bernal, official historian for the city of San Jose, said locals simply called the cemetery behind the county hospital "County Cemetery" or "Potter's Field," where deceased who were indigent, unknown or unclaimed were buried.
Bill Foley, a documentary filmmaker and a member of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County, called the potter's field "a very unfashionable place," after reading newspaper articles mentioning the graveyard between 1902 and 1917.
"It's a shame to have people who were essentially forgotten for their lives forgotten for all eternity," he said. "Whereas others will get a nice burial in a nice cemetery, they get a parking lot."
A 1916 newspaper article tells the story of a 7-week-old girl named Mary Melefeore, who could not be buried anywhere but the potter's field because a physician had not attended her death.
In 1902, a man described as delirious died in the county hospital "and was buried in the cemetery attached to that institution," a newspaper article from the time says of the death of Tucker Kelly.
Santa Clara County no longer buries its indigent. They are all cremated, as allowed under a 1965 California statute Rossi said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Philip Barbara)