Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Christ Church Burial Ground and the Government Shutdown

I’d long thought that Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia was government-run, and therefore I figured it might be closed due to the current government shutdown. Nearby Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are both closed as they are operated by the National Park Service (even the Park Service’s website is down!). Naturally, I was wrong. Turns out that the historic burial ground is run by, surprise, surprise: Christ Church. And it was open today, Columbus Day, a legal holiday. (See link at end for list of what is open and what is closed in Philly during the federal government shutdown.)

Christ Church is the only cemetery I’ve ever visited that charges admission. Yes, two dollars (as of October, 2013) to get in. It’s right across Arch Street from the Philadelphia Mint, so the fact that you have to pay money to see an historic national landmark that’s right across the street from where they make the nation’s money is kind of ironic.

I’d always been put off by the admission fee, but I suppose this is a more palatable way for the Episcopal Church to make money from its cemeteries than to actually LEASE them like the Roman Catholic Church is doing with its cemeteries in the Philadelphia Archdiocese (see link). The saving grace of Christ Church Burial Ground (established in 1719) is that Ben Franklin’s grave is visually accessible through the iron fence near the corner of Fifth and Arch Streets. So you don’t actually have to pay to see Benjamin and Deborah Franklin’s grave marker.  People throw pennies on his large, flat stone (“A penny saved is a penny earned,” Franklin said) and today, I even heard someone saying to his daughter, “Make a wish.

School children tossing pennies on Ben Franklin's grave (Christ Church Burial Ground)

I suppose the Church scoops up all the pennies each day and puts them to good use. The fact that we can see, touch, and walk amidst these historic graves is a tribute to the Church’s commitment to historic preservation. According to its website: “the Burial Ground was closed to the public from 1977 through 2003.  In 2002, The Christ Church Preservation Trust undertook a major program of renovation in order to reopen the Burial Ground.

There’s a tourist booth just inside the entrance gate where they sell books about the cemetery, and about our nation’s history as it relates to the few blocks around this area. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried here, including Dr. Benjamin Rush. Dr. Philip Syng Physick (the “Father of Modern Surgery”) and George Ross (Betsy’s uncle), along with various Biddles, Bainbridges, and other historic names from our nation’s founding. (Wait – one of the Beatles is buried here too...?!) Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to make out any inscriptions on the headstones. Most are smallish marble markers that have been worn smooth by acid rain. Bronze plaques now stand in front of the more famous headstones.

Worn grave markers in Christ Church Burial Ground

Still, everyBODY buried here was significant in his or her own right. The markers mark their lives, their mortal existence. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to transcribe all the engravings from the headstones in 1864, which has been reprinted in the book, A Record of the Inscriptions on the Tablets and Gravestones in the Burial Grounds of Christ Church,Philadelphia!

And speaking of printing, Franklin’s grave is by far the most popular, with people flocking to it with cameras and pennies in hand. A bronze plaque hangs on the brick wall near the grave. On it is the epitaph Frankin’s wrote for himself:

"The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author."

Once I had backed up and was leaning on a crypt cover in order to get a longer view of the Franklins’ grave, when a guard ran over to me and asked me not to lean on the other monuments. I was a bit annoyed, thinking at the time, “This guy thinks this place is a museum!” But in retrospect, it is. And since that time I have witnessed a headstone falling on someone, so maybe safety was on his mind too.

Supposedly 4,000 people are buried in this 2-acre plot of ground. Interesting number, since an acre today typically holds 1200 to 1500 side-by-side graves. How did they jam in the extra thousand? Did they bury them standing up? Without burial vaults? At various depths? ? AND ….  this is still an active burial ground! My guess is that things have probably disintegrated below ground to the point where there’s probably nothing left of the 300-year-old wooden coffins, allowing room for additional burials. As you walk through the place, you do get the sense that it is rather dense with grave markers and headstones. Still, things were artfully arranged - I like the way these large flat crypt covers in the image below line the walkway from the gate off Fifth Street.

Crypts line walkway of Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia

Outside Christ Church
If you visit, you may notice there’s no church here. So where is Christ Church? It’s actually two blocks away, near Second and Market Streets. It has a tiny graveyard surrounding the church, and the additional land at Fifth and Arch was purchased to expand the burial ground when the church property filled up. The church still has George and Martha Washington’s pew box roped off, where they sat during services. Other early American notables were parishioners of Christ Church, a veritable Who’s Who of the American Revolution:  Betsy Ross, John Adams, Absalom Jones, and the Franklins, to name but a few.

References and Further Reading: 
Christ Church website
National Park Service website
Click here for a list of what is open and what is closed in Philly during the federal government shutdown
U.S. Dept. of the Interior website