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Bronx Cemetery Sees Exodus as Relatives Apply to Exhume Bodies

By James Fanelli | November 14, 2012 6:55am

THE BRONX — Gladys Lugo said it was the long drive to visit her daughter's grave site. Catherine Iraldi said she wanted to bring her husband's remains to a family mausoleum in Italy. Natividad Echandie said she had finally gathered enough money to buy a burial plot for her great-granddaughter.

The three women are among the 14 families who went to court over the past two years to have their loved ones disinterred from the St. Raymond's Cemetery in Throgs Neck and laid to rest somewhere else. By contrast, the equally sprawling Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx didn't get a single request during that period.

While most of the city's deceased remain buried in their final resting spots for eternity, a few end up relocating on account of a loved one's appeal. And for reasons no one can fully explain, St. Raymond's, a Catholic cemetery, receives many of those unusual requests.

"The problem is getting to the cemetery," said Lugo, 62, who lives in Roselle Park, N.J.

For the past 30 years, Lugo has visited her daughter Sonia Montalvo's grave at least once a week. She said she likes St. Raymond's but decided to move Sonia to a New Jersey cemetery after traffic became a nightmare.

"It took me almost three hours to get there one day," Lugo said. "That's what led me to decide. Getting from Jersey to The Bronx is just hard."

Sonia was only 7 years old when she was buried in the Pieta section of St. Raymond's in 1981. Her body had been found near the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. A year earlier, Sonia and her sister had disappeared with their father, Yamil Montalvo.

At the time of Sonia's death, Lugo lived in Manhattan, and her church helped obtain a donated plot to bury her daughter. Sonia's marble tombstone carries her picture and two engravings — hands clasped in prayer and a cross draped with rosary beads.

In order to exhume remains from a cemetery, a loved one must make a petition through the court. In August, Lugo filed one in Bronx Supreme Court.

She said she wanted to move her daughter to Fairview Cemetery, but Fairview prohibits tombstones with pictures. Instead, Lugo settled on the Rosedale and Linden Park Company Cemetery in Linden, N.J.

A worker at St. Raymond's who didn't want her name used speculated that migration might be the cause of the cemetery's relatively high number of requests for disinterment.

"[Families] leave The Bronx. They'll go to New Jersey," the worker said. "They want their loved ones to go with them."

The worker also said the cemetery has a high volume of burials — more so than most cemeteries.

"Sometimes we have 18, maybe 20, burials a day," she said. "We're busy."

Lawyer Lawrence Waxman has represented two families in the past year who requested exhumations from St. Raymond's. He couldn't explain why St. Raymond's had more cases than other cemeteries.

"One family bought a family mausoleum," he said of his clients. "The other one, the woman relocated to Italy."

Some requests are simply to disinter loved ones and re-bury them in a different part of St. Raymond's.

According to Natividad Echandie's petition, her great-granddaughter Aisha Morales, 21, was the victim of a random drive-by shooting on June 29, 2011. At the time, Morales' family did not have the money for a cemetery plot, so she was buried in a St. Raymond's plot owned by Echandie's friend.

In January, Echandie petitioned the Bronx Supreme Court, saying she had since bought her own plot in St. Raymond's and wanted Morales buried there. A judge approved the request in February.

Lugo received court approval to move Sonia in October. She estimated that the move will be complete sometime next year.

Lugo said she doesn't dwell on the sad circumstances surrounding her daughter's death when she visits the grave site.

"I really don't like to rehash," she said. "It just brings bad memories. I want to remember the good ones."