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Remains of 900 individuals uncovered from Kelly's Bluff cemetery

As workers continue to dig up human remains in long-lost graves on a scenic bluff overlooking Dubuque, Pat Leonard is preparing to rebury the bones in consecrated ground once again.

Crews from The Office of the State Archaeologist Burials Program, based out of Iowa State University, have been documenting and removing human remains and artifacts from unmarked graves at the old Catholic Third Street Cemetery on Kelly's Bluff in Dubuque. Buried in haste and panic during a cholera epidemic, many of the bodies were never recorded. Although archdiocesan records show about 800 burials at the Third Street Cemetery on Kelly's Bluff, all of which were supposed to have been removed a century ago or more, about 900 more burials have been discovered there since a man and his dog found a bone in 2007.

"There is no map of the cemetery and few markers are left. A monument was a luxury at the time, and even if they had wooden stakes as markers, those are long gone," said Leonard, of Leonard Funeral Home and Crematory.

As the superintendent of Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, Leonard is overseeing the reburials at Mount Olivet.

Some of the burials were in graves aligned according to ancient Irish tradition -- head to the west and feet to the east so the dead would be ready to arise from their graves facing the sunrise on judgment day, Leonard said. But as disease and death spread among Dubuque's poor immigrant neighborhoods, it seems frightened families disposed of bodies by tossing them into mass graves on the bluff.

"What they are finding now is bodies on top of bodies, helter-skelter," Leonard said.

Archaeologists from the Office of the State Archaeologist Burials Program working at the closed cemetery site can be seen digging and sifting in head-high trenches.

After three years of field work, many of the more intact bodies seem to have been located. Now, archaeologists are uncovering smaller remains and artifacts. The workers find burial shafts by using backhoes, then use shovels and trowels and finally dental picks to carefully recover minute pieces of bones and coffins, said Shirley Shermer, head of the burial program.

All remains are sent to the burial program's labs for labeling and recording. The first fully processed remains are now back in Dubuque, and Leonard is preparing to rebury them this week.

"They will all be placed in a vault and buried close by here," said Leonard, indicating an area of Mount Olivet set aside more than a century ago for reburials from the old Third Street Cemetery, which was closed in 1867. The section is marked by two simple lines of gleaming white stone monuments -- with crosses and cherubs and names including Kelly, McManus, Mulligan and Welsh. Those graceful gravestones are nearly the only markers left for hundreds of burials on Kelly's Bluff. Several were found in pieces, but Leonard and a local Eagle Scout cleaned all the segments and cemented them together.

"I'm just positive that no one will be able to identify any of these, but if they had a great-great Irish grandfather who died of the plague and was buried at the Third Street Cemetery, we'll be able to tell them that his remains are probably here," Leonard said.

"We can't make it right, but at least we're returning them to consecrated ground, close to their fellow Catholics."

Author: Mary Nevans-Pederson | Source: TH Online [November 16, 2010]


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