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Court Approves County of Santa Clara Petition to Remove 100 Pine Coffins and Remains from VMC Potter’s Field

E-mail Address Established for Inquiries
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF.—Today, the County of Santa Clara received court approval of its petition to remove and properly dispose of approximately 100 pine

coffins and remains found at the potters’ field at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The 100 coffins that are directly in the path of construction will be dealt with in accordance with the law and current County practices for handling the indigent deceased. The estimated 1,345 remaining coffins will be left in their current resting place.  The County has designated an e-mail address and phone message center until Aug. 1 for individuals who believe their loved ones were buried at the site, and want to provide the County with information to help in the identification process.
“We are committed to handling the remains at the potter’s field in a respectful and dignified manner,” said President George Shirakawa, County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors.
A potter’s field, a cemetery reserved for burial of persons that were indigent, unknown or unclaimed, was discovered on the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Campus in San Jose. The graveyard dates from between 1875 and 1935. The pine boxes were discovered in February when construction

crews were doing grading work for the site. In a map dated 1932, the cemetery is marked; but on a later map dated 1958 there was no cemetery identified. By 1966, there was an employee parking lot on top of the cemetery. Initially, 15 pine boxes were unearthed, but there may be as many as 1,445 pine boxes on the site.  This estimate is based on the area designated on the 1932 map and the spacing of the 15 boxes. While the County has some records of County hospital deaths from 1925 to 1940, the records do not indicate who may be buried in the VMC cemetery or in the particular coffins that need to be moved for the current construction. There does not appear to be any markers on the pine coffins, and because the coffins have not been disturbed, it is unknown whether there will be any identifying information buried within.
If information is found that identifies any of the 100 individuals buried in the coffins, the County will attempt to locate family so that they can claim the remains. In such cases, relatives may arrange for a proper private burial.  
The lack of information limits the County’s options under the law to move the bodies. The County will address the disposition of unclaimed remains through the Coroner’s procedures that include cremation and holding of the ashes for a period of 30 days so that any relatives/heirs who desire to do so can claim the ashes.
 “The remains will be removed and disposed of in accordance with the County Coroner’s policy,” said Deputy County Counsel Michael Rossi. “Unfortunately, the lack of information about who may be buried in the cemetery not only limits our ability to identify the remains, but it also makes this a very lengthy process for potential identification of the 100 individuals’ remains.  Due to the age and condition of these remains, it may not be possible to identify many of them.”
Under the approved court petition:
·         The County of Santa Clara may remove the remains necessary for the completion of the Services Building Replacement Project on the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) campus under the supervision of a qualified professional who will ensure that the existence or state of human, if any, is properly documented.
·         The remains shall be moved in a fashion that retains their individual integrity and in the event that any identifying information is found within the coffins, the County will take reasonable measures to locate heirs in accordance with Health and Safety Code section 7525.
·         In the event that any information identifying the remains as Native American is found, the County shall comply with Public Resource Code section 5097.99 to provide notice to the Native American Heritage Commission.
·         If no heirs are discovered more than 30 days after the County’s reasonable measures to contact them in accordance with the law, the County shall affect the cremation of the remains, as allowed by Welfare and Institutions Code sections 7104, 7109, and 17009.
·         After the remains are cremated, the County shall scatter the ashes consistent with the Coroner’s current procedures for indigent or unclaimed bodies (at sea or in a scatter garden) in accordance with County policy and procedure as allowed by Welfare and Institutions Code section 17009.
·         The County may remove additional remains within this identified cemetery in accordance with this Order if and when encountered in connection with future VMC projects based upon the written determination of the Director of Facilities that construction of a VMC facility requires such removal.
Until August 1, 2012, residents who believe their loved ones may be buried at the potter’s field, may contact the County by e-mail at or a phone message center at (408) 299-5192 to provide the following information:
·         full name/address/phone number/e-mail address
·         the deceased’s name
·         relationship to deceased
·         the approximate age at death (if known)
·         gender
·         race
·         date of birth
·         date of death (if known)
·         any supporting documents you may have about the deceased that might help with identification
The information provided will be retained and matched with any identifying information found within the coffins. Should the County need more information or identify a family member, the individual will be contacted.
Media Contact: Gwendolyn Mitchell/Laurel Anderson, Office of Public Affairs, (408) 299-5119, or Joy Alexiou, Valley Medical Center, 408-885-4164
Posted: May 18, 2012