Early on a sunny April morning, the North Market parking lot is still empty. It’s on this spot that developers plan to build a 26-story high rise.
There’s just one problem, says archeologist Ryan Weller.
"That whole parking lot that you're looking at was completely contained in what used to be the North Graveyard for Columbus," Weller says. "As you’re walking on the sidewalks and the pavement through here, there’s burials less than a foot to two feet deep."
And there could be dozens, even hundreds, of bodies that still remain.
Room To Spread Out
Construction for a business and residential tower is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2020 just steps away from the North Market. But before that can happen, developers are obliged to excavate and remove what remains from the cemetery just below their feet.
Around 200 years ago, says historian Ed Lentz, the cemetery was well-used because downtown church lots were too small to have cemeteries of their own.
"In 1813, John Kerr set aside an acre and a half just north of the town’s city limits – Nationwide Blvd., – for a cemetery," Lentz says. "It became known as the Old North Graveyard. Other additions were made until the cemetery got to be about 10 acres in size."
Decades later, Lentz says, city leaders realized the Old North Graveyard had reached its capacity.
"Beginning as early as 1856 it was clear that the graveyard was filling up, and efforts were made to limit the number of people who could be buried there," Lentz says. "By 1864, council had passed an ordinance that said nobody else could be buried there, but people continued to be buried there into the 1870s."
So the city decided that the graveyard’s bodies should be relocated to Green Lawn Cemetery, south of the city. Those reburials began in the late 1870s.
"Hundreds of people were removed from the Old North Graveyard, but a lot of them weren’t," Lentz says. "We don’t know how many. The records of the cemetery – the map showing the location of lots, the sexton’s records showing who’s buried where – all of those are lost."
Bodies Left Behind
Over the years, construction crews discovered not all the bodies were indeed removed. In 2001, an employee of the archeological firm Weller & Associates, Inc., was watching the excavation for a Short North sewer line when he spotted human bones in the dirt.
"One day I get a call on my cellphone," Weller says, "and he said, 'Get down here quick! Two arms just fell into the trench.' And we had to go to where they were putting the fill in to find the rest of the remains."
Weller says he was shocked to find so many bodies had been left behind.
"We didn’t expect anything because we’re digging through pavement," he says. "And that’s when the history started to come into perspective - like, wow, the cemetery’s still here!"
Weller and others worked for several months cataloging the bodies they found along the sewer line’s route. Sometimes, he says, they’d find only parts of a body, other times the whole skeleton.
"They were completely intact," Weller says. "You could see the drop seat pants on the people and you could still see what they were wearing, and the coffin remains are still there."
And many - maybe even hundreds - are still there, Weller says.
Rebury The Dead
As today's city leaders plan new developments, they say they're aware of the situation.
"We are standing on a former public cemetery," says Columbus’ director of development Steve Schoeny. "There may be remains that are dug up. There’s a procedure that we work through how to appropriately dispose of those remains."
Those procedures are outlined in a letter from Ohio’s State Historic Preservation Office, which was sent to the developers. And while no formal agreement has been signed, the developers are obliged to follow them.
Weller thinks the bodies should be gently reinterred. Excavating remains and cataloging the finds could cost anywhere from a $250,000 to $500,000, and would take about to two to three months.
"I know they are sealed underneath pavement right now," Weller says. "That doesn’t seem very dignified, but they were supposed to have been removed. And I think it’s just responsible to treat them kindly and to rebury them with some kind of dignity."
This story has been updated.