By Ronnie Cohen
FAIRFAX, California (Reuters) - Relatives of a pioneer buried in a paupers' cemetery unearthed by construction crews beneath the parking lot of a California hospital implored a judge on Friday to spare Anna Cardenas from cremation and allow them to give her a Catholic burial.
Following a hearing in San Jose on the fate of a long-forgotten cemetery for indigent patients like Cardenas, who died in 1915, Judge Thomas Cain granted Santa Clara County permission to exhume 100 pine coffins buried at the site.
Construction crews discovered the potter's field with an estimated 1,445 caskets in February, and the county asked Cain for permission to remove 100 of the deteriorating wooden boxes, which are in the way of a Santa Clara Valley Medical Center expansion.
Although authorities are unlikely to be able to identify the remains, Cain ordered county officials to do what they can to locate descendants of those buried there. If no heirs are discovered after 30 days, though, the judge said the county could cremate the remains.
Cardenas' granddaughter, Gloria Jabaut, 79, described the discovery of the cemetery as "bittersweet" because she doubts the coffins will yield clues that will identify her Catholic grandmother, who would not have wanted to be cremated.
"I really just want to be able to find the remains and rebury them at the Catholic cemetery," Jabaut told Reuters after the hearing. "It would certainly be a miracle if we could get her buried. Now we're left to fate."
When Cardenas died aged 42 in 1915, the family could not afford to pay for her burial.
Throughout her life, Jabaut said her mother, Ana Silva, tried to locate the grave of the mother she lost when she was 18.
Judge Paul Bernal, official historian for the city of San Jose, said he believes indigent, unknown and unclaimed bodies were buried in the potter's field from 1860 until about 1935.
Six families have contacted authorities to say their relatives may be buried in the graveyard, said Gwendolyn Mitchell, a county spokeswoman.
Rossi said the county will hire an archeologist with expertise in potter's fields to excavate the coffins, try to identify the remains and locate relatives.
Jabaut would like the county to install a plaque recognizing the pioneers buried in the field. "These people certainly were the foundation of this valley," she said.
Jabaut said she was shocked to read about the forgotten cemetery her mother always insisted existed. "I thought to myself, my mother's probably saying, ‘Yippee, I knew it all the time.'"
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)