10 Times Cemeteries Were Relocated to Make Way for Human Progress
Because the act of burial is not as permanent as you think
It’s not just the plot of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 thriller, Poltergeist. Relocating cemeteries to make room for the living is a more common occurrence than people may realize. And shockingly similar to Spielberg’s movie, there are plenty of times when the tombstones were moved, but the bodies were left behind. (Although thankfully, there are no accounts of spirits coming through the TV in these tales.)
Here is a list of ten old graveyards that were repurposed into spaces for the living, such as parks, stadiums, schools, and housing.
Sometimes the bodies were moved. Sometimes they weren’t.
#10: Lincoln Park, Chicago
Lincoln Park is Chicago’s pride and joy. It’s a charming neighborhood with beautiful gardens, lots of lakefront green space, and stunning skyline views. However, there is a little-known secret lurking under all that beauty. At the south side of the park sits an old mausoleum with the name “Couch” carved on the top. It’s the last remembrance of an old graveyard that used to sit on the land now known as Lincoln Park.
Back in the 1800s, the area known as Lincoln Park was a graveyard for 35,000 people. But the city continued to grow, and city officials decided they didn’t want a cemetery taking up precious lakefront space. They chose to repurpose the land and began moving bodies and tombstones to make room for a park. But several things hindered this, including the Great Chicago Fire of 1872 that ripped through the area. The fire destroyed many tombstones leaving it impossible to know who was buried beneath. The damage from the fire and a lack of funding for moving the bodies may have contributed to 12,000 human remains being unaccounted for, and possibly still buried under Chicago’s picturesque Lincoln Park.
#9: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans
Technically, the area that used to be the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans is not under the Superdome. It’s situated in the Superdome’s parking lot and nearby shopping center. However, this hasn’t stopped the rumors circulating through Saints fans that their football team is cursed because they play in a stadium built over a former graveyard.
The Girod Street Cemetery opened in 1822, where 22,000 people were laid to rest in its tombs and mausoleums. The land frequently flooded, and maintenance was poor. By the 1940s, it was in such disrepair the city condemned it as unsanitary. In 1957, the city began the process of relocating the bodies.
By the 1970s, with no signs left of the old graveyard, the Louisiana Superdome, now the Caesars Superdome, was built. However, years later, construction workers from a nearby worksite found the remains of 20 people, reminding everyone of the Girod Cemetery and the remaining bodies that had been forgotten. The legend of the curse was born.
#8: Shanghai Disneyland Park
Everyone knows Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, and Shanghai Disneyland Park is no exception. With 963 acres, seven themed lands, and the largest castle in all the Disneyland parks, it’s an incredibly popular place to visit. It’s also the second-largest Disney Park in the world. Florida’s Disney World is number one.
However, there is a secret lurking beneath the grounds. In 2009 before construction began, it was announced that 1,200 graves needed to be moved from the land before any work could start. Families of the deceased received payment for each relative that needed to be relocated. As far as we know, the bodies were all properly moved per Chinese tradition.
Unlike the next entry which brings us back to New Orleans.
#7: French Quarter, New Orleans
If you dig very deep in the ground in certain sections of the French Quarter, there’s no telling what you may find. In 1984, 29 human remains were discovered at a construction site in the French Quarter. This is why French Quarter homeowner, Vincent Marcello, hired an archeologist to do a test dig before beginning construction on a swimming pool in his backyard. Sure enough, the archeologist found 15 cypress coffins filled with bodies.
The bodies came from an old, forgotten burial ground that was established only five years after the city was founded. St. Peter Cemetery opened in 1723 and was one of New Orleans’ first graveyards. It was closed in 1789, and the land was sold in the 1800s for development.
Because of a dispute over who owned the property, the Catholic Church, or the government, nobody took responsibility for the bodies. Construction began over the graves. Buildings were constructed, and the city forgot the graveyard was ever there. Forgotten, at least until someone tried to dig a swimming pool in their backyard.
#6: Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, Waco, Texas
In 2007, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum had to halt construction on an expansion when construction crews began digging up unmarked graves. Archeologists were brought in to investigate. It took several years, but in all, the remains of 200 people were found.
The land was formerly Milwaukee’s First Street Cemetery, established in 1852. It was known to be overcrowded, and bodies were often poorly marked or buried on top of other bodies. In 1968, the Waco City Council voted to move some neglected gravesites and their markers. But the discovery in 2007 made it clear, just like in Poltergeist, they left the bodies behind. They only moved the headstones.
#5: Housing Complex, Tampa Bay, Florida
In Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1901, a 2.5-acre segregated cemetery was established for African Americans. Zion Cemetery, owned by wealthy, Black businessman, Richard Doby is believed to be Tampa Bay’s first cemetery for Black residents. For approximately twenty years, the dead were buried in the parcel of land along North Florida Avenue. Though records are sparse, an old map showed 800 grave sites.
By the 1920s, the cemetery had changed ownership. The new owners wanted to develop the land and build shops, bakeries, and residential buildings. By the late 1920s, Zion Cemetery had simply disappeared. It was no longer seen on maps or city directories. And in 1929, a five-shop storefront went up where the cemetery used to be, with no record of bodies being moved.
It turns out, the bodies hadn’t been moved. They were still there. In 2019, ground-penetrating radar found over 120 coffins located underneath the Robles Park Village public housing complex. The residents were relocated, and a memorial is planned for the former gravesite.
#4: Washington Square Park, New York City
Bodies under your feet may be the last thing you have in mind when walking around vibrant Washington Square Park in New York City. However, as we’ve seen from this list, bodies may be buried under us anywhere. City workers came across a rather gruesome discovery under the park as they were replacing a century-old water main.
Two vaults containing at least a dozen people that were buried over 200 years ago were discovered. The underground chambers rested only 3.5 feet beneath the busy sidewalk above. One of the tombs had been discovered in the 1960s but was later forgotten again due to shoddy record keeping. The second tomb was untouched. Archeologists have dated the bodies from the 1800s, probably victims of the yellow fever epidemic.
#3: North Fulton Golf Course, Atlanta
A golf course is another place you would never expect to find a hidden cemetery. However, high-tech mapping uncovered 86 unmarked graves merely feet away from the fifth green in Atlanta’s North Fulton Golf Course. The bodies were buried in two segregated cemeteries for the Fulton County Almshouses, considered paupers’ graves, from 1911 until the mid-1930s.
When the golf course was built in the 1930s, there were records that 311 bodies were relocated before construction began. It’s possible the 86 unmarked graves were older and had been forgotten by the time construction began on the golf course, meaning today, golfers may be teeing off at the green with bodies buried nearby.
#2: Maryland Avenue Montessori School, Milwaukee
This cheerful building in Milwaukee now houses a Montessori School for children. However, the building sits on the site of a former graveyard. From 1849 to 1850, there was a massive cholera outbreak in Milwaukee. Around 300 people suffered and died from the disease and were buried in the East Side Potter’s Field.
In 1887, most of the graves were moved to make way for a new school. However, they weren’t all found and relocated. In the 1950s, construction workers discovered human remains left behind. These people may have been hastily buried during the cholera outbreak. The bones were found near the surface, only 18 inches deep.
Not all of the bodies were uncovered at the time. Recently, during basement repair work at the school, four additional human bones were discovered.
#1: Chicago O’Hare International Airport
In this final instance, although the dead were laid to rest, they weren’t allowed eternal rest. At least the city made every effort to move all of the human remains, and not merely the headstones. The city of Chicago spent $17 million relocating Johannes Cemetery to make room for a new runway at O’Hare International Airport.
However, families with loved ones interred at St. Johannes cemetery fought the airport progress for years. The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court. The city won. Nearly 15,000 graves were relocated to expand the airport. And now planes land above the ground where bodies used to lie.
This story was originally published on Medium.