Except for a tiny caretaker's cottage that has fallen into disrepair, there are no clues that these 3 acres of industrial land off the New Jersey Turnpike served as a potter's field.
On Sunday, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority held a memorial service for the 3,500 people buried there. In about a week, archaeologists will begin digging up the graves to make room for a new rail transfer station along the highway.
The remains will be reburied at a cemetery in North Bergen, where a single monument will be built with the names of the deceased.
John Keller, project engineer for the Secaucus Interchange Project, said the disinterment is among the largest ever performed nationwide. He said the only larger project was in 1997, when more than 9,550 bodies were removed to make way for an expansion at Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
About 20 people attended Sunday's service, led by four clergymen and held in a white tent with metal folding chairs. Among them was Patrick Andriani of Roxbury, who believes his grandfather was buried in plot No. 6408 on New Year's Eve 1948.
"Listen, I would like for the bodies to stay here," Andriani said as car horns blared from the turnpike overhead. "But they will be better off. Right now, they're under 5 feet of garbage and refuse."
The Andrianis are the only relatives of the deceased who have contacted the turnpike authority about the remains of family members, spokesman Joe Orlando said.
Sunday's service was largely attended by reporters, turnpike employees and the engineers who will oversee the project.
The old graveyard, used by Hudson County from the late 19th century until 1962, was covered with landfill when the original eastern spur of the turnpike was built. It was disrupted again when the county built a now-abandoned jail on part of the cemetery.
Turnpike engineer Robert Grimm said the graveyard project will cost about $5 million. About 40 archaeologists will begin the excavation Feb. 18 and work through the summer.
"This is going to be the equivalent of any archaeological dig," Orlando said. "It's going to be done by hand. It's a meticulous project."
Archaeologists will try to locate plots using an old map of the graveyard. The map, along with a ledger listing the names of those buried at the site, were found in a Hudson County building in April.
The only surviving landmark from the map is the caretaker's cottage, which no longer has a roof and is covered with a blue tarp.
The turnpike authority does not expect to identify any remains, Orlando said. About three people will be buried in each new grave shaft in North Bergen, he said.
The Secaucus site will be used for a $235 million interchange that will serve the new Secaucus Transfer Station along NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor Line.
The $500 million station will be a northern New Jersey rail hub, and also serve planned office towers, hotels and retail space nearby.
A marker will identify the site as a former burial ground and direct visitors to the cemetery in North Bergen.
By Elizabeth A. Kennedy