Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery


Normally, I don’t find myself checking tide tables before going on a photographic excursion to a cemetery. But when my friend Leo and I decided to search for underwater tombstones from Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery, we needed to heed the table, as most of the stones are covered at high tide. No, these are not photographs of one of those offshore cemeteries in a coral reef − nothing quite so romantic. You’re looking at the remains of Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia’s largest vanished Victorian graveyard. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

        Tide       Height Sunrise  Moon  Time    
        Time       Feet    Sunset   

Low     12:13 AM   0.6   6:13 AM   Rise 12:11 AM   
High     5:43 AM   7.6   7:45 PM   Set   9:43 AM
Low     12:57 PM   0.4
High     6:21 PM   6.6



Offshore burial?
So my cemetery travels have taken me this time not to an actual cemetery, but to the Delaware River waterfront under the Betsy Ross Bridge (Philadelphia side), where the remains of this once grand cemetery lie. In this secluded, wooded, and posted (“No Trespassing”) area, scores of granite headstones, monuments, and ironwork lie on the shore, protrude from the embankment, and peek out of the murky river water.

How did tombstones get in the river?


I’d originally read about the demise of Monument Cemetery in Tom Keels’ book, Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, but I still thought it might be an urban legend.  When I read in his “Vanished Cemeteries” chapter  that the monuments and grave markers were dumped into the river and you can see them sticking out of the water at low tide, I knew I had to check this out personally. At my request, Tom graciously gave me quite specific directions to get there, adding:

 “… this is a fairly desolate, industrial area.  Please take all precautions − go with one or two people during the daytime, bring your cell phone, and be on the alert. ”

As with any attempt at urban exploration, you need to be prepared — hiking shoes, tough clothes, weapons. You never know what kind of nutters you’ll run into — members of the transient community, kids having beer parties, ne’er-do-wells. But success only comes to those who brass it out.

So after some months of planning and reading other people’s accounts of their treks to the riverfront (some successful, some not), I figured out when low tide would occur and enlisted my friend Leo to come along. As it turned out, access to the riverfront is made near the intersection of Delaware and Castor Avenues, in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia, right between an abandoned power plant and an active industrial complex. The power plant was actually the site of my first official urban exploration excursion with a group of experienced explorers. At the last minute, I chickened out. It just seemed too risky − I’d already been arrested once for trespassing. The aborted power plant experience paid off, however, in that the vicinity was now familiar to me - the dumped gravestones from Monument Cemetery were at the same riverfront area, only on the opposite side of a canal.

The Demise of Monument Cemetery

Eighty gravestones vandalized at Monument Cemetery in 1938.

Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia (located at North Broad and Berks streets), was the city’s second Victorian garden cemetery, established in 1839, just after Laurel Hill (1836). Originally called Pere-Lachaise, after the first ever rural garden cemetery in Paris, it was renamed Monument Cemetery.  The history of the cemetery is not well-publicized, but it grew to a fairly large size (28,000 graves despite its relatively small 7-acre spread). The last burial occurred in 1929, and by 1938, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. By the 1950s, the land became more desirable that the cemetery itself, and Temple University, across the street, wanted to buy it and build a parking lot.

Monument Cemetery found itself waning, but Temple helped it to hasten down the wind. According to Tom Keels:
 “Neighbors wanted to keep the cemetery, but Temple held public hearings and brought in local church people to convince the city to condemn it and let the school buy it. They claimed it was attracting teenagers who drank, then went out and robbed people. The tone was that not only was Monument Cemetery an eyesore, it was a moral blight. It was bringing down the entire North Philadelphia neighborhood [um, look at North Philly now − destroying that cemetery was supposed to prevent this?]. Of course, every single person I've spoken to who lived and worked in the Temple area at the time says it was a little rundown. The lawn needed mowing, but it was where they went to have lunch. It was the only quiet green place in the neighborhood."
http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com

How was this allowed to happen? To put things into historical perspective, at this point in American history, people were not keen on Victoriana (anything from the era 1837–1901). Many Victorian era cemeteries fell into disrepair because people thought they were old fashioned.  Lot owners in many cemeteries across the U.S. were actually embarrassed by the old-fashioned gaudiness of their own family plots and removed the decorative fencing and other ironwork to sell for scrap. So even though many of Monument Cemetery’s lot owners fought the eviction of their ancestors, there really was not much public outcry against plowing over the cemetery and building a parking lot and playground (as Temple and the City’s Board of Education wanted). The photo above shows the 1956 dismantling of a memorial dedicated to George Washington and General Lafayette. Keels says, "Today they probably wouldn't be able to get away with that, but in the 1950s it was, 'This is an old moldy Victorian cemetery. Who cares.'"

Photo showing Betsy Ross Bridge (NJ 90) from an industrial area in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia. (Photo by Steve Anderson.) from site: http://www.phillyroads.com/crossings/betsy-ross/

So Temple got its wish in 1956. They removed the bodies (most of which were reburied in a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, a northeastern suburb of Philadelphia) and took most of the headstones, monuments, and other decorative stonework and dumped it all into the Delaware River. The tombstones were used as the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. Today, they can still be seen at low tide. To get to them, you need to walk over the canal bridge on Hedley Street (map link), approach the industrial site (shown above), and cut into the woods on the right side of the road. Your access is a break in the fence almost under Betsy herself. Close to the road this area is a dumping ground for old mattresses and sofas, further in its partyland for transients. Walk the quarter mile path along the canal through the woods to the river.

So we found the stones. I expected to see a few broken ones here and there poking out of the water, but was quite unprepared for the sight that presented itself.  As we approached the river, we could plainly see gravestones scattered along the rocky shore. In fact, much of the rock that made up the shore itself were broken tombstones − some marble, but mostly elegantly carved and polished granite stones, coping from family plots, huge blocks of foundation granite used for large monuments. These apparently are the ones that tumbled off the dump trucks, rolling over the stones that had already been dumped. I realized this as we climbed down the ten-foot embankment, using tombstones for steps. They protruded out from the dirt, making you wonder just how many were there. Certainly more than were obvious.

Shoreline under the Betsy Ross Bridge, Philadelphia
River tides are a funny thing. I learned this from one of the fishermen I work with. I just assumed that all water bodies connected to an ocean had low tide in the morning and high tide at night. Turns out that most places have two high and two low tides each day, and the actual hour at which these occur depends upon the phases of the moon (so low tide times for a particular day, for instance, can be eight hours later on the same day a week later!). While tides are predictable, their timing was not very practical for my photographic purposes. Low tide was to occur at 1 p.m. on Good Friday during the month of April. Therefore, take a vacation day from work.

Leo on tombstones, facing north
Good Friday was a perfect overcast day − flat lighting is good if you’re not sure what the shooting  conditions will be. As you can see from the chart excerpt at the beginning of this article, low tide occurred at this point in the Delaware River (tide times also change with your location!) at 12:57 pm, a good time to make photographs. We arrived about 2 pm. The timing was fairly critical since (according to the chart above), by 6 pm the sea level would rise six feet above its lowest point (which was about where it was on our arrival), covering most of the stones we photographed. You’ll notice mud on many of the stones, indicating they were all underwater earlier that morning.

Leo and I walked along the shore maybe the length of a city block and counted about 50 whole stones, with an additional eight peeking out of the water. After 130 years, inscriptions are still clearly visible on them − granite doesn’t fade as fast as people’s memories.

Standing near the water, looking up at an embankment made primarily of tombstones, I felt like I was at the foot of Golgatha − this was Good Friday, after all.  Seeing piles of grave markers and monuments, shaded by trees hung with condoms and other trash, made me wonder how anyone could do this to a cemetery. Couldn’t they at least bury the monuments, or smash them up into gravel? At the foot of the rubble was this headstone, which originally marked the grave of Capt. Babel H. Irons’ wife, Mary. No sign of Irons’ own marker, but what a great name! Every stone here has a story. After his death, it seems that Captain Irons had a 223-ton Philadelphia-based merchant sailing vessel named after him, so he must have been well-respected at the time.

According to the New York Times, a Marine Intelligence telegraph was received on Nov. 27, 1874 from the brig Castilian, which mentions Babel H. Irons. “…on the night of the 23d inst., in a south-east gale, lost boat, split foresail and jib, stove bulwarks, and had deck swept of galley, &c.” The Irons stone here on the river shore stares at you like the final flare from a shipwreck.

Frequently, I'm asked me how a cemetery becomes ‘abandoned.’ Well, that’s a topic for another blog. Monument Cemetery was not abandoned, let's be clear on that − it was destroyed. After reading what little is available on the Web about Monument Cemetery and after seeing the dumped stones, I had so many questions. I made an appointment to do some research at the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. Tune in next week to see what I dig up (pun intended).


Further Reading:
Nicole Clark's End of the road - Philadelphia's graveyards

45 comments:

  1. I found your site after searching for info on Monument Cemetery. I just found a record stating that my 3Xgreat grandfather was buried there. Here's my blog post about it: http://knotholeoftime.blogspot.com/2011/05/tombstone-tragedy.html?showComment=1304388932153#c301910010529574426

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  2. Hi Elizabeth. I can direct you to the volumes of records at the Historical Society if you want to look up any info on your great-grandfather. There are 3 sets of books with gravestone inscriptions for all the Monument Cemetery burials in alphabetical order.

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    1. Hello- great blog. I am trying to locate graves of relatives dying in 1778, 1793 and 1823 which were members of the German Lutheran Church (St Michael's and Zion) in Philadelphia. I believe they were buried at 5th and Cherry and the other location of 8th and Vine(Franklin Square - St John's Lutheran). Any assistance would be great. Family name is Eisenbrey. Thanks. I can be reached at psnow@comast.net

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    2. Kate Leeman PitluckMay 6, 2013 at 3:34 PM

      Try contacting Philadelphia Memorial Park, Fraiser PA for info on St Michael's and Zion. There is just a slight chance they are there. They have a section in the back from the German Lutheran Church Cemetery (with stones)

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  3. Many of my ancestors were buried at Monument ... I have copies of the original lot book pages with names and dates, but of course if there were any tombstones with more information, they're likely under the bridge now :-( I'll have to check out HSP's books of gravestone inscriptions. (I'm also scouring your pix to see if I see any Drum headstones!) Isn't it sad to realize what's been lost because of the lack of respect for history?

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  4. I have at least a great grandfather and possibly other relatives who were buried at Monument Cemetery. What are the names of the 3 sets of books with the gravestone inscriptions? I am assuming you mean the Historical Society at 1300 Locust Street, Phila.. (If not, where is the Historical Society?)

    Thanks!

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  5. I see that both articles on Monument say that the last burial was in 1929- a figure which came from an article you found and posted in the other Monument blog post. However this is not the case. I have a relative who was buried there in 1929, but another one buried there in 1931 and a great-great-grandfather in 1932. I once got to look through a transcription of the Monument burial records at the Genealogical Society of PA and am pretty sure I even saw a burial date in the 1940s, but can't be quoted on that. Either way, I know from personal experience that burials were going on in the 1930s. I have seen a plot record of theirs now held at Lawnview, and on it you can see names written down in the 1950s of current contacts. It seems like they used the phone book and looked up the last names, and since my relatives' last name was not a common one and were still living in Philadelphia it was pretty easy to track them down. They were told the cemetery was being closed and that they could move them to Lawnview or elsewhere on their own accord. Obviously this method for contacting relatives is far from exhaustive and is why so many from the 19th century went unclaimed, it would be just too much work to track family representatives down if any were even left unfortunately. An interesting side note, I have a picture of my grandfather with his family which is clearly taken in a cemetery. As his family plot was located in Monument and he remembers visits there when he was young, I can only assume that is where the picture was taken.

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  6. Too bad Temple University takes no responsibility for the tombstones in the river. They should salvage the grave markers that remain and move them to Lawnview. This is a sad story to me. Thanks for making us aware!

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  7. I came across your site while trying to locate this cemetery so I could visit my ancestors' tombstones, as many of them were buried at Monument. I feel a bit sick realizing they're now in a mass grave and their tombstones have been dumped like this.

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  8. What a true travesty! Why is it that in the NORTH, historic places are destroyed while they are preserved south of the Mason Dixon Line? Shame, shame on Temple University. I always thought schools were for preserving thepast, not destroying it.

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    1. Yes, a true tavesty and I've visited the new resting place of my relatives marked with just the last name of the lot owner. I now live in Madison, Wisconsin and have seen historic buildings knocked down for the ever expanding University of Wisconsin, so no, schools have no interest in perserving the past. I certainly will never root again for the Temple team.

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  9. Is there any possibility that the books of recorded burials might be put into the database of the findagrave website?

    http://www.findagrave.com

    While their graves may never be found, their information would be of great interest to family, historians, and geneaologists.

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    Replies
    1. I did that and wrote about it in a later blog. Great idea, thank you.

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    2. Hello, you can also get all the Monument Cemetery grave records on Ancestry.com now. It really is very sad they opted to remove this cemetery. People buried their loved ones here thinking they'd be at rest in this spot forever. On a side note, I don't understand why the markers weren't kept with the bodies. Yes, it would have taken more effore (which is probably why it didn't happen). These families paid for these markers. They belong to them...

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  10. I've been there. I was not tracking the cemetery, I was tracking the historic waterway from the stream called Honey Run in Germantown into the Wingohocking Creek then into the Juniata Creek (all these are underground sewers now) and then into the Frankford Creek and then into the Delaware exactly where you describe. That "canal" you are talking about is no canal, it is the ancient mouth of the Frankford Creek destroyed and polluted beyond recognition. What they did to the cemetery is bad, I guess, but compared to what they did to the creek, it is nothing. Dead people are buried under every house and yard in Philly, that's common in an old city, and natural, but the streams and creeks are the vital life-blood of the land and to see them poisoned and then paved over is a on-going crime.

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  11. That "canal" is indeed the Frankford Creek, but it's not the original mouth. The creek was diverted in 1956 ot it's current location in the last of a series of rechannelizations aimed at reducing the chronic flooding and eliminating the remaining surrounding swampland.

    The original mouth and part of the original channel lie approximately 1.5 miles upstream from the current mouth.

    Great post, as is your follow-up.

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  12. Wonderful post... I wish I had been with you!

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  13. There's a mention of this in a brief story about cemeteries being moved:

    http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120502/NEWS14/205020318/-1/NEWS1402

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  14. Serendipity...
    Yesterday, after almost 25 yrs of searching, I found that my X3ggrandfather was buried in Monument Cemtery. I Googled the cemetery, and found your story and the wonderful ccomments. It was very valuable to have you post the references to the books available... I'll check these out.So with disappointment comes appreciation.
    Also, as an older southerner, I can tell you that the reverence for historical cemeteries still exists, but the commitment and the financing are quickly fading to support this character trait in the "new" south. . . alas!

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  15. I too have a GGG-Grandmother, and possibly others in the family that I have just recently found that were buried at Monument. It is a sad statement of our society that we destroy the old buildings, cemeteries, etc. without batting an eye. But such a disgrace to remove the bodies, throw them in a mass grave and then toss the tombstones in the river like this - wow, unbelievable. Are there any records that say which family members were moved and to where?

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  16. Oh my gosh. I am shocked. Upset. Irritated beyond belief. First, I find my ancestors were buried at Mt. Moriah and was crushed to find that it is in such bad shape and bad location that it was recommended that I not visit. Then I find record of my people buried at Monument... What galls me the most about this story is that the disrespect continues as long as those headstones remain in the river. A hard slap in the face, twice a day, every day...

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    1. There is hope for Mt. Moriah. A fraternity brother of mine is a member of a very active group that has been restoring and cleaning up Mt. Moriah. Here is a link to their organization. www.friendsofmountmoriahcemetery.org/

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    2. Welcome to the "Great Society."

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  17. My one month old nephew passed away this week. And my mom and me found a little angel statue we wanted to put on his cemetery stone. Does anyone have any ideas of how or what we could use to make it stay on top of the granite stone? Any ideas would be appreciate. Thank you so much

    hvac schools in Delaware

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  18. Kathie McBride Leeman PitluckMay 6, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    OMG, I've been looking for those stones for years and years, And I have been looking for the LEEMAN stone first and formost. And someone posted this site and I clicked on it and who's stone it right there on top?????????????the LEEMAN stoned. Thank you, she finally wanted to be found, (I was born and raised in Phila and 2 years ago I retired and moved to Mesa, AZ to be warm most of the year)

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  19. How aweful that the city (of Brotherly Love) and Temple University did this. Completely disrespectful to the dead and to their descendents. :-(

    Wondering if a list names of who was once buried there was recorded? So saddened, sickened and angered, that this was done.

    Thank you for posting the story.

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    1. Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge has the original cemetery records. For me, they were helpful in the providing information. They can also show you the lot they were moved to. The "new" lots simply have the last name of the lot owner on them.

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    2. You can also get the records now on Ancestry.com. Sadly there have been many other cemeteries which have been removed around the country. It is not isolated to Philadelphia.

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  20. As a kid growing up in Port Richmond and Bridesburg (1970s) we always walked down to the river and always checked out the old tomb stones at the foot of the Betsy Ross Bridge. I never knew where they came from but I do remember seeing the old sea captain's stone. Across the canal is an old iron railroad bridge. Before the area was turned into a automotive junkyard we would explore the nooks and crannies of what we considered "the woods". Under that bridge was thousands of small glass balls (larger than a marble) that must of been dumped some time in the distant pass. I'm sure there are still probably thousands buried just under the surface.

    I would caution anyone trying to traverse this area without some local guide. The homeless sometimes use the area as a refuge along with old teen related illegal activities. The best course of action is to bring a canoe or small boat, put in at the PA Fish and Game Commission boat ramp near the Frankford Arsenal, and paddle down to the area. The currents can be strong so check your tide charts. Since 9/11 the access road adjacent to the Betsy Ross Bridge as been fenced off and the area is patrolled by the DRPA Police.

    It is a neat place to visit and just about any kid who grew up in Bridesburg has visited the place on time or another. It is definitely part of the local lore of the neighborhood.

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  21. I can't imagine who would make such a decision to put these stones in the river, just thinking those people paid good money for those stones to be on their graves. I would be wary to what would befallen upon me, if I did this. How would they like it if it was their gravestone? I am beyond words learning about this. Now I know why it is so hard finding where my Ancestors are buried. This is to me a ruthless act to demolishing the Past History and a disgrace to our Ancestors. What has become of our society to lower ourselves to not respect the Dead!!! I have 14 Ancestors who were removed from Odd Fellows, and I don't know where they may be now. Oh... possible they maybe in the bunch of graves they found last year near the School, when they were digging the water line. I have three people who were buried at Ebenezer ME Church graveyard and they have been removed, I Don't know where they may be buried. This is very sad and disturbing for us Genealogist who are trying every avenue possible to try to find our Ancestors. And the thoughts of mass graving, it should be against the Law! How would anyone feel to know that you paid for your plot and Gravestone, but was moved later in years and they dug a BIG HOLE and dumped your remains in it, and put your Gravestone in the river because they didn't want to pay the expense to locate them with their remains. All I can say; how could anyone go to sleep at night when knowingly this was not done right. There is no justification to this! Put yourself in these Ancestors shoes on how they would feel if they knew what our society has come to. The proper way was to find a Plot to wherever they were moved to and their Gravestone to be placed on their grave!!! And Pray to God we Genealogist can find them! I am done, I am upset!!! I lived in Philly at one time, but am so glad I’m not going to DIE there!

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  22. Thanks for publishing this. I had hoped to find an ancestors information from his stone in Monument cemetery only to find your story which explained why I cannot find a transcript anywhere. It is hard to believe people would allow this. It says a lot about the system of government that values money above all else. Future generations will judge the people responsible for this act, an act which cannot be undone.

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  23. I also have just found relatives of mine who were buried in Monument Cemetery. How terribly sad that this was allowed to be done to the remains of all those people. I can't believe such disrespect. Thank you so much for all this information. I will continue to search for any information I can find on those ancestors buried at Monument Cemetery.

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  24. I have had so much death in my life that I just expect it to happen everyday for me. I just lost my mom, and I don't know what I am supposed to do anymore, she was always the one there for me. I want her funeral to be remembered and I want her monument to be outstanding to others so that I can pick her out in a blink. http://www.genesisgranite.com

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  25. I've never heard about this cemetery, but I'm sure it would be really fun to check out. I would want to just look around and see all the old monuments they have, because some of those look really nice.
    http://www.genesisgranite.com

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  26. Thank you for sharing this story, one that needs to be told and shared.

    Cemeteries are supposed to be memorials for those buried there. They're supposed to be a collection of biographies, an area filled with stories to be discovered. It's not just the granite and marble stones but the stories behind them. Unfortunately, for those whose lives meant nothing to them, the decisions of some led to an atrocious, disgusting and thoughtless act of incomprehensible disrespect. As a result the last mention of existence and the stories that could be told for these people are hidden beneath a bridge and the waters of the Delaware River.

    Shame on you Philadelphia!

    We are the story tellers ...

    http://bit.ly/FamilyHistoryandTheStoryTellers

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  27. Maryann C. Martel/Fall River, MassachusettsDecember 14, 2014 at 1:10 PM

    I am shocked beyond belief! Now that it is well known I do not understand why the city/state/Temple School do not do something about this. The stones should be salvaged and placed honorably in the cemetery where the mass burial was placed.

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  28. "Today they probably wouldn't be able to get away with that"

    Every day they do get away with that. Politicians are owned by the living wealthy. Even the rights of the deceased wealthy amount to nothing when someone sees dollar signs.

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  29. I have recently found my third great grandparents were both buried there. Thank you for this overview of what happened to their bodies and their stones. Very sad.

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  30. Wow, the city of brotherly love egh? What a joke! After years of searching I found my ancestors names listed in a historical book - unfortunately 10 of my ancestors were buried at Monument Cemetery. Words can not describe my disgust that this was allowed to happen. I guess I'll never get to see the headstones carved in granite meant to last the ages will I? May the people involved in the land grab and desecration of the graves be ever haunted!

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  31. I am working on a registry of U. S. Revenue Cutter Service officers (1790 - 1915) and have found an officer Charles A. Laws was buried in Monument Cemetery in January 1887. Perhaps there are others. This made the cemetery partly a military cemetery. I wonder if Temple knew?

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  32. I'm researching 1st Sergeant Anthony Earl Thomas, Company H, 29th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was originally buried in Section E, Lot 26. His body was exhumed, and he was reburied in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Thomas was 53 years old when killed at the battle of Gettysburg, making him the oldest member of his regiment to lose his life there.

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  33. I came across your blog post while researching some ancestors and finding that one of them was buried in Memorial. I discovered on findagrave.com that this was a "defunct" graveyard, and then came across your blogpost. Thanks for sharing. I know my ancestor was in plot 107, but I can't seem to locate whether she was one of the folks that were moved in the 50s or not. What a shame!

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  34. I came across your blog post while researching some ancestors and finding that one of them was buried in Memorial. I discovered on findagrave.com that this was a "defunct" graveyard, and then came across your blogpost. Thanks for sharing. I know my ancestor was in plot 107, but I can't seem to locate whether she was one of the folks that were moved in the 50s or not. What a shame!

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  35. Like many others who have posted comments, I have concerns too. I haven't read everything but I will. Thanks.

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  36. I was a Temple student from 1955 - 1959 and remember remains being removed with zero reverence and considerable disrespect. A back hoe opened the rows. The water table was high to the point coffins were flooded. Workers with hooks pried open the coffins and extracted what remains possible with a hook. Not all gravestones left the cemetery since I distinctly recall workers smashing them apart with sledge hammers. Two ended up in my fraternity house...Emily and Mable. Extremely disrespectful, in retrospect, but at least they survived.

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