Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Cain ruled Friday that the county may unearth up to 100 coffins, with the help of an archaeological firm, in an attempt to identify the bodies buried at a Valley Medical Center construction site.
County counsel Michael Rossi told NBC Bay Area, which broke the story Wednesday about the hidden burial site, that authorities would work to release the remains to families if they can be located.
If the bodies aren't claimed, Rossi said they will likely be cremated. Construction has been halted in that area of the hospital because of the discovery.
The "pauper's grave," or "potter's field," was discovered by construction crews doing seismic work at the hospital in February. Rossi said there are about 1,500 bodies buried under the hospital; the court order allows for the removal of the first 100.
NBC Bay Area obtained obituaries from that time, and discovered some of the people buried there: a hospital worker who committed suicide, a baby, and an elderly immigrant from Mexico.
Judge Paul Bernal, the official historian of San Jose, said that the area used to be called the "county cemetery," and it was typical for cemeteries to be built behind the county infirmary. Typically, either poor people, or people who couldn't be identified, were buried there, he said.
In 1875, a new three-story hospital was built, and this particular cemetery stopped being an active burial ground in 1935, he said.
A status hearing was set for Nov. 9 to the judge can monitor the progress.
Relatives who think they have a loved one buried at the site have until Aug. 1 to contact the county by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or a phone message at 408-299-5192.