Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time for a Little Football?

Over the years, I’d driven past a few small roadside graveyards in Conshohocken, PA. This is northeast of Philadelphia, outside the city limits. As soon as you get off the PA Turnpike and head south on Germantown Pike, you start seeing them, quaint little spots that history forgot.  You look at these forlorn little cemeteries and you know for certain that whatever needs to happen next isn’t going to happen here.

Cemetery entrance gate on Butler Pike

One such graveyard sits calmly on busy Butler Pike, nestled between an insurance agency and a car dealership (at Twelfth Avenue). No name is evident, but it’s two-hundred –foot frontage is dressed with a low stone wall and an old iron gate – hardly a deterrent to a vandal or a teenage tryst.  There’s a wonderfully unique miniature castle-sort-of-looking granite monument front and center facing the road. Its bare pedestals once hosted statues or urns, perhaps.

The old cemetery seems very typical of the geographic area, until you walk the length of the narrow, deep cemetery toward its back half. There’s a large grassy gap – maybe a third the size of the entire cemetery − between where the headstones end and two large white marble monuments stand. In this space stood the football tackle practice sled you see in the photo at left.

As I walked out to toward these monuments, I noticed traces of marble headstone bases here and there in the grass. A glance to the right side stone wall of the cemetery confirmed my suspicion − most of the headstones on the back half of the grounds had been removed and were repurposed as building stones for the wall! (You can see these in the top photo beyond the blue pads.)

I suppose that decades ago, this was an old derelict cemetery and the townspeople got together and “cleaned it up.” In so doing, they (intentionally or not) created an athletic field for the Conshohocken Youth Football organization to use for practice. (I assume the blocking sled belongs to them, as they have a facility behind the cemetery.) The young boys must dodge the old marble Celtic Cross and large obelisk as they run around.

As the blocking sled was one of the more unusual items I’ve seen to date in any cemetery, I posted the image (below) on Facebook, and received many cries of dismay. Most were based on the disrespect to the dead, but one posting was quite thought-provoking:
"Probably was done decades ago, but still the students are going to see this and think that it is ok. It's not - we need to find and build respect in our country again …"

While I agree wholeheartedly that we should set an example of respect for our dead, I assume as well that this "repurposing" of the graveyard happened decades ago. The cemetery was probably let go and derelict. As I've said about other forlorn cemeteries in the past, it appears that up until the 1950s, we just didn't care. And I include all our ancestors - we, collectively, just didn't care as much as we do now. Something happened to our sensibilities around the 1950s and we stopped plowing over old moldering graveyards to make parks. Obviously, this sort of thing would not happen as easily today, even if the land was extremely valuable.

So while I find it difficult to be judgmental about what the people of Conshohocken did to a derelict graveyard, I shudder to think what might have been their Plan B.  My knowledge of such things is inadequate and explosive, so I’ll just change the subject.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write a blog about this place if one of my readers (Michael T. Dolan) hadn’t directed me to an article he wrote, which is about growing up near a cemetery and playing football in it with his friends. It really is a wonderful story, having nothing to do with organized sports − in general, it’s about growing up, with the cemetery as the focal point. I highly recommend the reading his essay, “Learning to live in a graveyard.To quote Mr. Dolan, "October’s spirits fill the air, calling us to revisit the cemeteries of our lives, so that we may remember what it is like to live."

As for the little Conshy cemetery in question, it looks like there hasn’t been a burial here since maybe the 1920s, with most of the still-standing stones being much older than that. After a bit of Internet digging, I’ve decided this must be “Old St. Matthews Cemetery,” Just a few blocks away from the newer St. Matthews Cemetery (at Butler Pike and North Lane). Since St. Matthews Parish was founded in 1851, I assume this was the original parish cemetery. The other one seems to have been established later.