Monday, February 6, 2012

The Cemeteries of Germantown

Days after our mid-January tramp through Philadelphia’s Germantown cemeteries, I’m worshiping the Neti (pot) god, hoping the water doesn’t contain any parasitic brain-eating amoebas (see link at end). The frigid winter weather made my cold worse, in addition to freezing my fingertips off. But it was worth it.  Two fellow cemetery travelers and I checked out St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s churchyard cemeteries in Germantown, a Philadelphia neighborhood northeast of center city.

I had been to both locations in the past, but my friends hadn’t. I certainly didn’t mind, as you find something new in a cemetery each time you visit. For instance, the first time I visited St. Michael’s Lutheran Church cemetery around 2006, it was just for a few minutes. I was in a hurry to get somewhere and saw it as I drove by. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I pulled over and checked it out. I came away with the "Sacred" image below and these hourglasses-and-crossbones stones. So I was anxious to spend more time there. Turns out these are the only examples I’ve ever found in Philadelphia cemeteries that have markings similar to the old skull and crossbones symbols that are so prevalent in New England.

Both St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s are fairly large cemeteries, densely populated with Civil War and Revolutionary War veterans’ graves - most notably American soldiers who fought the British in the Battle of Germantown in October 1777.   

About six blocks from St. Michaels, down Germantown Avenue, is the Chew House (now known as “Cliveden”), the site of the Battle of Germantown. General Washington led his troops to attack the British on this spot, about five miles outside Philadelphia. The British, led by General Howe, won the battle, ensuring that Philadelphia, the capital of the self-proclaimed United States of America, would remain under British control throughout the winter. It was a key battle, in that it convinced the French government to side with the Americans.

"Christopher Ludwick was a resident of Germantown, a baker whom George Washington befriended at the time of the Battle of Germantown in the fall of 1777. Ludwig was a master baker of gingerbread, which seemed to one of Washington’s favorite treats. General Washington asked Ludwick (an ardent Patriot) if he would consent to becoming the Baker-General of the Continental Army, in charge of baking bread for the officers and soldiers. He consented, and thus became a part of the war effort for the Americans. He was personally responsible for causing a great many Hessians (German mercenaries) to forsake their cause and become American citizens after the war. Ludwig was also well-known for his generosity, and he funded many charities for orphan children with his estate money." (Ref.)

Ludwick is buried in St. Michael’s cemetery, having died in 1801. Both St. Luke’s and St. Michael’s appear to be closed to new burials, as we didn’t see any dates past the 1940s. St. Michaels seems quite a bit older, with graves dating back to 1742. While all the graveyards of Germantown are historic in their own right and definitely worth visiting, something about St. Michaels took me by surprise. After photographing there, I looked it up on the Internet and was amazed to find such an organized parishioner effort geared toward restoration and preservation of the cemetery! I invite you to read it on St. Michael’s website, where you’ll find photographs and historical information like the above quoted description of a quite notable grave.

The cemetery is at road level, and the iron fencing is bent and broken in spots – the unfortunate result of auto accidents on Germantown Avenue. It’s a very busy road, and apparently has been since the 1680s! Certain grave markers have actually been damaged by cars, if you can believe that. Though restoration efforts continue, many stones toward the back of the cemetery are toppled over, graffittied, and surrounded by empty beer cans. Sections of fence are missing all along the Phil Ellena Street side of the cemetery, inviting delinquents and vandals.

Axe's Burial Ground, Germantown
The ”Battle of Germantown” could actually be a current descriptor for the area’s fight to keep itself from totally collapsing under the weight of crime and urban blight. While the neighborhoods on Germantown Avenue are not horrible, they’re close. St. Michaels is just up the road from Germantown High School, where other battles rage - the students here have been known to beat up the teachers. The area around St. Luke’s is a bit safer, but not by much. It’s situated kind of between St. Michael’s and the more famous Axe’s Burial Ground further down Germantown Avenue. That area is definitely sketchy. The fortress-like wall around the burial ground thwarts vandals and has been painted with anti-graffiti paint.

A few years ago I pulled the car over to duck into a nearby package store for a cold six-pack, and was stunned to see the Asian clerk looking at me from behind bullet-proof glass. After taking my beer from behind the spinning security door, I walked out onto the avenue toward my car. Now realize that this is broad daylight on a warm Saturday afternoon. A well-dressed African-American gentleman in his seventies stopped me. In a hushed voice, he said, “Son, you really don’t want to be here.”

Times change, don’t they? While I found no additional hourglass-and-crossbones carvings in St. Michael’s cemetery, I was rather shocked to come upon a giant Roman-numeralled clock face lying amidst some stones – its bent metal hands and motor mechanism strewn across the grass. Luckily no one was standing here photographing the tombstones when it blew out of the clock tower above our heads. Time flies. After photographing the remains of the timepiece, it just got too cold to continue. Frozen on this late January day, with both my memory card and bladder full, we all beat a hasty retreat from St. Michaels’ for some winter ales and hot soup at McMenamin’s pub, a ways up Germantown Avenue, to contemplate life and all its quirks.

References and Further Reading:
Germantown Avenue (Philadelphia City Paper, 2003)


  1. Great post - fascinating stones!

  2. The further adventures of the Tombstone Three! Great article Ed!

  3. Thank You for this..I live further up germantown avenue and I recently noticed the peculiar headstones on my way home from work and it is right near the breakfast spot I frequent. This is such awesome history!

  4. A couple of comments:
    - Germantown is northwest of center city, rather than northeast.
    - Although Germantown still has many rough edges, it is much better than it was say15-25 years ago. It is on the way up, painfully slow in many respects, but still moving in the right direction.