Monday, May 27, 2013

Forgotten on Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, I cannot help but think about the trademarked slogan of the Wounded Warrior Project (see link at end), “The greatest casualty is being forgotten,” and how the phrase is so descriptive of Graceland Cemetery.


Entrance to Graceland Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania

Graceland, that full city block-sized, um, field in Yeadon, Pennsylvania supposedly has thousands of United States veterans of many wars buried beneath its grass. The place looks like one of those memorial parks with the flush-to-the-ground grave markers – except there very few grave markers of any kind. On this Memorial Day in 2013, the bare flag poles behind the entrance sign stare at you in mute witness to what had been and what might have been. Honestly, if it were not for the oddly striking white marble monuments scattered here and there across the field, you would think it was just a park.


There’s a community athletic field alongside Graceland Cemetery, and housing on the other two sides. An industrial company sits near the entrance to the grounds, at Ruskin Lane and Bailey Road (Map). The cemetery is off the beaten path, a few blocks from the center of town. Yeadon, by the way, is a small town in Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia on Philly’s southwest side. I used to live nearby, and I never knew the cemetery was there.

Graceland, which was established in 1774, has been referred to as North Mount Moriah Cemetery since around 1895. This was due mainly to its geographic proximity to the much larger Mount Moriah Cemetery (established in 1855), which is about a half mile away. Graceland was not, and is not part of Mount Moriah Cemetery. It has, however, been known by other names, e.g. Buren Hill Cemetery and Sylvan Memorial Park.


Civil War headstone lying in Graceland Cemetery
The sign at the entrance to “Graceland Memorial Burial Ground” (as it is called on the Delaware County History website) says that 1600 Civil War veterans are buried here. So why no fanfare? Why the bare flagpoles? Did they move the bodies as some websites indicate? My question is this: if all the bodies were removed, why is it still called a ‘cemetery” on the sign?



Some burial records exist, but not all. As the entrance sign indicates, Graceland is home to an “unknown number of civilian burials.” On the Delaware County History website, a few hundred names are listed. Among them, eleven veterans. If the records exist, the federal government can be petitioned to have new grave markers made to be placed on these veterans’ graves. If worn stones exist, they will be replaced for free. Why the town of Yeadon has not requisitioned the federal government for new stones for the veterans’ graves is beyond me. According to these records, the locations of eleven veterans’ graves are known, based on a 1936 survey of the remaining headstones. 

This 1938 account of the burial situation indicates that the body count of veteran “soldiers” is closer to 5600. It goes on to state “Many of the old stones have been damaged and carried away and broken by the boys who frequent the cemetery as a play-field. Others have been used to form a wall at the rear of the cemetery. I should judge about fifty of the old fashioned marble, three inches thick type, made up the wall.” According to court documents, the Borough of Yeadon condemned the cemetery in 1964 because it was a “public nuisance.” It was closed to future burials and most of the head stones were removed. I assume the handful of large marble and granite monuments still on the grounds were left there simply because they were too large to move.

One of a handful of lone monuments left in Graceland Cemetery
I cannot help but wonder if one of the reasons for building the athletic field - Kerr Field - next door (a basketball game was in progress during my visit), was to discourage continued use of the graveyard as a playing field. At least the sacredness of the ground has is being observed – there appears to be no ball-playing of any kind in Graceland. Even though there are no gates or fencing, the locals obviously avoid walking through the cemetery to reach the basketball courts. There are also no paths worn in the grass. Signs warn of a $300 fine for dumping.

On my first journey out to this place where the journey of so many others ended, I instinctively began walking toward the distant corner of the cemetery field, toward a lone eight-foot marble obelisk. Too preoccupied with the surrounding rowhomes (and their quaint graffiti), I hadn’t noticed the stubs of white marble sticking out of the grass here, there, everywhere. You can see that the grounds were at one time densely populated with headstones and other grave markers. White marble nubs, headstone bases, and an occasional section marker are scattered all over the field, flush with the ground. The stones that stick up more than an inch have been clipped and worn by the blades of riding mowers. The grass is cut routinely here, I assume by the town. At least this form of respect continues to be afforded the dead.  

Graceland is supposedly the home of reinterred bodies from various condemned cemeteries in Philadelphia (Macpelah in South Philly and Hanover Cemetery in Kensington, to name two). By 1938, Graceland still had an owner, but the property was not taken care of. Headstones were stolen and smashed. “By the time Yeadon took over the care of the cemetery, many of the stones had already been stolen or broken throughout years of neglect and were piled to the side or were decorating neighborhood gardens.

Lone monument on the edge of Graceland Cemetery
According to this Ancestry.com reference, the town of Yeadon cleared the derelict cemetery in the 1960, dumped all the headstones somewhere, and [maybe] moved the bodies to Rockledge. Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of northeast Philadelphia had reportedly been the recipient of various cemetery reinterments, with mass graves being the burial method of choice. So much for a "blissful immortality." 

Whether there are 5600 veterans buried at Graceland, or even 1600, or just eleven, can we at least mark the eleven known graves of our war veterans? Flush-to-the-ground memorial plaques would not impede the grass-cutting. 

Naval Plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia
So on this Memorial Day, 2013 – one hundred and fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg – the lives of so many veterans have been forgotten. These were not unknown soldiers – the grave markers were originally there – we just, as a people, allowed them and their memory to be destroyed. Ironic that the original purpose of Memorial Day was to commemorate the lives of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. It was originally known as Decoration Day, a day on which veterans’ graves would be decorated with flowers. The veterans’ graves in this particular cemetery will not be decorated as long as the locations of the graves remain unmarked. This disrespect to the veterans rests with us as the nation that created this memorial cemetery in the first place.

References and Acknowledgements:
Wounded Warrior Project
Thanks to Robert Hobdell for historical information.

14 comments:

  1. Hi Ed-- it may be of some interest to you (although not of much comfort) to know that insofar as veteran's graves are concerned, neglect amounting almost to abuse is not restricted to the US. I live in Toronto, Canada, and am an amateur historical researcher who has seen plenty of neglected veteran's grave sites in cemeteries administered municipally by people who should know better. The phenomenon exists country-wide and is to some extent a matter of economics.

    I found your blog (and your article on zinc grave markers from a couple of years ago) in a search for current commentary on zinc grave markers in which I have a substantial interest. My forebears are located in southern Ontario near St Thomas, the town in which Monumental Bronze located its only Canadian franchise, which operated basically between 1883 and 1901. One of my ancestors was probably associated with the St Thomas White Bronze Co, and I have discovered some, admittedly ambiguous, evidence which suggests that contrary to received wisdom, zinc grave markers were, at least at the St Thomas plant, manufactured, that is molded and then cast and assembled, right from the start of the process, in St Thomas. In other words, The Bridgeport plant of the Monumental Bronze Co played no part in the production of the St Thomas markers. Barbara Rotundo, in her article in "Cemeteries and Grave markers", inclines to the opposite view, and others generally agree. I suppose it's possible that the manufacture mode differed from site to site (Des Moines, Detroit, etc).
    I guess I'm writing to you to ask whether you, in your interesting travels and researches, have found anything which suggests just how Monumental Bronze worked through its franchises, and what occurred where. I'd be very happy to hear anything, even of the most grossly speculative nature. Many thanks.

    David Spring

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    1. Oh, "grossly speculative" is right up my alley! I so happened to post something on the White Bronze Facebook page today (https://www.facebook.com/groups/210120245693740/?fref=ts) and was surprised to see two photos of zinc monument bases showing the following:
      "Detroit Bronze Company Detroit, Mich." and another that shows "American White Bronze Company, Chicago, IL"
      So obviously you are right! These names would not be part of the mold unless the manufacture was done in these locations.

      As far as Monumental worked the franchises, I have read that orders were taken around the country, and the manufacturing was done in Connecticut. I believe sales were made door-to-door, not through stone monument dealers. The zinc memorials were also sold through the mail, like through Montgomery Ward catalogs, or something.

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  2. That's really sad that no one is even sure what happened to all those people, veterans or not. Thanks for writing about them!

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    1. You're welcome. Thanks for reading.The more people know, the more likely they'll remember ...

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  3. Wow ---interesting, but sad. It's frustrating that it's not very clear about these markers, etc.

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  4. It's sad to know that there are unknown number of civilian burials. I do hope veterans or not, those people will be remembered and will get to have marks on their graves. Everyone needs to be recognized and found.

    - SunCityGranite.com

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  5. Thanks for the article. It is so sad that this has happened to veterans and civilians. Way to many cemeteries are like this.

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  6. Ed I can't thank you enough for your diligent work in helping us remember our dead. Supposedly my 3rd Great Grandmother is buried at Graceland as part of the great exhumement back in 1895 from Machpelah Cemetery. I am not for sure but I am researching as best I can from here in Texas. I have written to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to help me with any information that might be recorded about those removed. Thank you again.

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  7. I grew up with Graceland Cemetery in my backyard. I was born in the 50's and moved away in 1980. In all those years, I never saw anyone visit any graves there.

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  8. I have only recently discovered an ancestor buried at Graceland in 1831, his name is misspelled in the books, J. H. P. Tilce and it should be TILGE. His name was Johann Heinrich Tilge and he was born in 1776 in Germany and died in 1831. He's buried in grave number 143 which was close to the original entrance on Longaker Boulevard. I found a map of the graves and about 15 pages of names (same as the list the Delaware Historical site has) on ancestry in a compilation of records "Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Church and Town Records, 1708-1985", specifically pages 336-353.

    My ancestor, my 4th great grandfather, and his sons were hatters and he had a patent in 1819 for stiffening hats. The cemetery may be abandoned and/or in disrepair and his stone long gone but he will not be forgotten. I appreciate your work.
    Nina Reauveau

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  9. Like Katherine Rees above, I too have just discovered that my 3rd great grandmother, Jane Shermer, was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in 1842 (also her son James in 1856) and her grave was relocated to Graceland. Graceland's listing gives only the surname Shermer and would seem to indicate only one burial, but two of the same surname might have been indicated as one. I also appreciate your work and hope to visit someday from California.

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  10. Like Katherine Rees above, I too have just discovered that my 3rd great grandmother, Jane Shermer, was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in 1842 (also her son James in 1856) and her grave was relocated to Graceland. Graceland's listing gives only the surname Shermer and would seem to indicate only one burial, but two of the same surname might have been indicated as one. I also appreciate your work and hope to visit someday from California.

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  11. Like Katherine Rees above, I too have just discovered that my 3rd great grandmother, Jane Shermer, was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in 1842 (also her son James in 1856) and her grave was relocated to Graceland. Graceland's listing gives only the surname Shermer and would seem to indicate only one burial, but two of the same surname might have been indicated as one. I also appreciate your work and hope to visit someday from California.

    ReplyDelete