Saturday, December 31, 2011

Graves Sinking into Ground

Sounds redundant, doesn't it? Unfortunately, yesterday on the news (FOX 29), there was a story about a huge sink hole that appeared in Allentown Pennsylvania (about 60 miles north of Philadelphia). Sink holes, for the uninitiated, are chunks of land that collapse downward into open space, space usually created (in northeast PA anyway), by old coal mines. The effect is similar to a sunken grave, when the old wooden coffin disintegrates and collapses into itself. This creates a void in the earth that allows the ground to fall - I'm sure you've seen such depressions in the earth as you've walked through old cemeteries. (If a concrete vault is used to hold the coffin, this doesn't occur.)

I didn't take any of these photos you see here - they're all from the website You can visit their site to see and read more. I have been to some of the Allentown cemeteries.

The sink hole appears to have given way in the middle of a street, and will prompt the demolition of at least two nearby homes. You can see portions of West End Cemetery in the photos. The coroner has gotten permission to exhume and move bodies if need be.

This is in the historic "Old Allentown" district of the city. Watch this Fox 29 news video to appreciate the magnitude the problem. (Listen to the part about the guy whose foot went through his basement floor and the hole started to fill up with water!) When a sink hole occurs, no one really knows when it will stop growing or even how deep it is! This particular one may take weeks to fill and repair. Even more frightening is the possibility of underground mine fires associated with sink holes, the most infamous ones that burned for decades turning Centralia, PA, into the ghost town it is today.

It appears that the Allentown sink hole caused a water main break, adding insult to injury. A dozen homes near North Tenth and West Chew streets have been evacuated.

I used to live about fifty miles further north than Allentown, in far northeast PA, Larksville, to be exact. The mountain my parents lived on actually smoked - a light smoke would always be coming from the ground as underground mine fires slowly burned the coal buried down deep. You wonder how people live like that, but they do. Sink holes, big and small, were also a way of life - a result of a hundred years of deep vein coal mining in the region.

Back in the 1970s, my Mom worked as a part-time housekeeper for a family in an affluent section of nearby Kingston, PA. One day she heard the teenage daughter scream from the basement. She ran from the first-floor kitchen to the basement door and started to run down the steps. She looked down and saw the girl at the bottom of the stairs watching in horror as the bathroom slowly disappeared into an ever-widening hole in the floor! My Mom grabbed the girl's hand and pulled her up the stairs, and out of the house! No one was hurt - physically, anyway. Property values, as you can imagine, plummeted.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grave Decorations - Christmas in the Cemetery

For the special season of Christmas, I’m putting aside my usual erudite, logical, and authoritative prose (stop laughing, I can HEAR you) – to examine why people decorate graves at Christmas. As opposed to just asking them, I’m going to just tell you what I think. It’s far less complicated that way.
Of all the holes that may exist in your life, driving through a cemetery at Christmas time can identify a big one. It reminds you of things to come, while making you glad you’re not there yet. That said, a cemetery at Xmas may be the only physical entity that Heisenberg didn’t account for, when he wrote that the simple presence of an observer changes things. Do you really think your presence in a cemetery ever changes it? How about the act of setting up and decorating a full-sized Christmas tree? If anything, it makes the whole thing even more depressing.

A cemetery is a figurative rock (filled with actual rocks) − an impenetrable fortress of stone built by an equally strong belief system. Author Salman Rushdie might refer to a cemetery as an “ironclad citadel of traditions and certainties." Christmas is another tradition, a very strong one for us mackerel-snappers (as an old Jewish guy friend of mine used to call Christians). So why not tie the two together? Surely the florists and garden centers would have us believe that everyone needs a “grave blanket,” or a wreath for the mausoleum door. Give ‘em points for trying, but they haven’t influenced mass behavior anything like the Hallmark card company has. Decorating graves at Christmas seems to have not quite gone public.

I guess the guerilla florists who set up in parking lots target Christians because it’s such a widely-celebrated Christian holiday. Maybe we’re more gullible? Why else would we decorate graves with Santas and reindeer? Hanukkah is a week before Christmas, yet I don’t see the florists hawking sparkling blue menorahs or cute little foam dreidels with which to decorate Jewish children’s graves (in fact, I’ve never even seen a Jewish grave decorated for Hanukkah). Since we haven’t all succumbed to the commercial brainwash, there must be something very personal about placing Christmas decorations on graves. I've even seen poinsettias and wreaths on graves in abandoned cemeteries! Makes you realize that even though a cemetery may be abandoned, not all of its residents may be.

Christmas is of course a Christian holiday, and Christians decorate their homes and malls to make everything feel more cozy − but why cemeteries? To include their departed loved ones in the festivities? Christ-MISS may just bring to mind all the people we miss.

Grave Decorations

"Remember your loved ones this holiday season with a hand-made grave blanket or grave pillow from Dayton's. Commemorate your beloved's grave with sprays of Blue Spruce and Pine along with waterproof ribbons and bows."

Of course there’s also the flip side of sentiment and honoring one’s memory – that of not letting go. In this respect, the loss just keeps on giving. “We’re in a psychologically menacing month when unresolved emotional conflicts, loneliness and other problems influence our behavior.” (ref) Popular wisdom tells us that more people commit suicide at Xmas than any other time of year. While Christmas can be depressing for many people, this is simply not true (Read more here) - but it’s easy to believe. (Studies have shown this to be the only suicide link to the calendar: more of them occur early in the week and fewer on the weekend.) 
"There's got to be a build-up to the day that Christ was born.
The halls are decked with pumpkins and ears of Indian corn.
Dragging through the falling leaves in a one-horse open sleigh.
Suddenly it's Christmas seven weeks before the day.

Suddenly it's Christmas the longest holiday.
When they say 'Season's Greetings' they mean just what they say.
It's a season, it's a marathon retail eternity
And it's not over til it's over and you throw away the tree."

“Suddenly It's Christmas” by Loudon Wainwright III; lyrics © DOWNTOWN MUSIC PUB LLC OBO SNOWDEN MUSIC, INC.(ASCAP)
According to the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, this is because Christmas is not a single day that’s celebrated, but an entire SEASON. So if you’re expecting to be sad and alone at Christmas, you won't just be sad and lonely on December 25th – you’ll be sad and lonely for two months. Even Valentine’s Day only lasts one day! A girlfriend of many months once broke up with me on Valentine’s Day. The actual day, right after a nice dinner out. Some people have impeccable timing, you know? But even in such a dismal situation, it’s simply the DAY that may remind you of the event a year later. On the contrary, if your Mom died on December 16th, this occurrence during the Christmas “season” is going to stay with you for many more.
"Christmas carols in December and November too.
It's no wonder we're depressed when the whole thing is through.
Finally it's January, let's sing Auld Lang Syne
But here comes another party shaped like a Valentine."
Which is not to say you're psychologically safe if your Dad died in August, as mine did. Christmas is traditionally when the family gets together. So when you're all sitting down for Christmas dinner five years hence, everyone still feels the empty space left by the missing person. Christmas brings the memory back. Which in some ways, is a good thing, of course. But do you REALLY want to go mucking about with all those Christmas decorations in the cemetery? Maybe it would be best to just drop the spray of pine boughs on your loved one’s grave and go back to life among the living.

And Furthermore .....

How to Decorate a Grave Site

Listen to Loudon Wainwright's "
Suddenly It's Christmas."

Monday, December 12, 2011

175 Years of Reflections, Laurel Hill Cemetery

This year, the commemorative book 175 Years of Reflections, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 1836 – 2011 was published. It’s lovely, coffee table-sized, and hard-bound, filled with personal reflections on Laurel Hill by scores of (mostly live) people. A few years prior, I was asked if I would donate one of my Laurel Hill photographs to be in it − quite an honor. My image, “Colder than Ice on a Tombstone (2008)” appears on page 125.

Ed Snyder's "Colder than Ice on a Tombstone"

Available at
It’s one thing to force your own art on the world by writing your own book, but to be asked to be in someone else’s book is very flattering and meaningful. I do want to thank all the people involved in putting the book together, and for recognizing the emotional connection of all the contributors.

The format of 175 Years of Reflections is quite clever – “ … a collection of 175 remembrances about the cemetery, dating all the way back to its founding to the present day and includes poems, journal entries and much more.” (The website Geekadelphia continues,) “Through these you get a picture of what the Laurel Hill Cemetery has meant to people and to the city of Philadelphia. It really is a unique way to understand something that has been a part of this city for so long.

Image by Frank Rausch (p. 110)
In April 2011, the Friends of Laurel Hill held a book launch at the cemetery. All contributing parties were invited. I knew one or two of my compatriots, but was not prepared for the dozens of people who showed up. Many of whom I’d only known through the press, such as Tom Keels (author of several books, including Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries), as well as others whose art was familiar to me, e.g.  internationally known photographer Bob Reinhardt.

Image by Marietta Dooley (p. 155)
It was a great social event for Philadelphia artists and writers - I made new friends like Marietta Dooley (whose photograph in the book graces the cover of Laurel Hill’s current tour guide) and enjoyed talking with familiars Frank Rausch and Scott Kreilick. Frank’s always got great stories as he lives in the cemetery, and Scott’s historical conservation company is responsible for restoring  the “Old Mortality” statue grouping housed at Laurel Hill’s entrance.

A copy of the book was very generously given to each contributing artist and author, whose work exemplified their own personal reflections of Laurel Hill Cemetery. As we lined up to receive our copy, people were thrilled to find that the organizers had taken the time to mark the page of the contributor’s work with a tall bookmark bearing the contributor’s name. Talk about attention to detail!

Image by Bob Reinhardt (p. 165 )
The event was incredibly well organized. Yards beer (Philadelphia’s best) and oer d'oeuvres were served, name tags given out, a tent and chairs to listen to the speeches. Gwen Kaminski (Laurel Hill’s Director of Development & Programs) read her poetry and Tom Keels spoke touchingly about his early visits to Laurel Hill. I remember quite vividly a line from one young man’s speech in which he mentioned  “the very human desire to be remembered after death.” The note included in each book from the “Friends of Laurel Hill” organization seemed to expand on this philosophic idea:

"Well beyond the year of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s 175th anniversary and, indeed, well beyond the life spans of those of us who are here to be part of it, this book will remain an enduring symbol of the language and art, of the life and death embodied by Laurel Hill. As a permanent addition to our archives, its words and images will inspire future generations of the living, and your own name will be forever linked with the history of America’s first National Historic Landmark cemetery." - Friends of Laurel Hill

What a wonderful sentiment! As far as my own photography and writings, I’ve leaned heavily on the creepiness of cemeteries, but that can be an unsteady rail. There really is just too much beauty and life in and around a cemetery like Laurel Hill to dwell on negative aspects. 175 Years of Reflections pulls together poems, stories, historical family photographs, fine art images, paintings, old lithographs, even children’s drawings  − REFLECTIONS, quite literally, on people’s POSITIVE experiences at the cemetery.

Cover detail
After the formal presentations outdoors, people were invited to stroll the grounds on this lovely spring day, or adjourn to the museum/gallery in the gatehouse. One could view the exhibits of historic memorabilia related to everything from Harry Kalas (the late Phillies sportscaster) to George Meade (lauded Civil War general), both of whom are buried at Laurel Hill.

During the informal milling about - and much to my surprise - various people came up to me and asked if I would sign page 125, on which my photograph was printed. Quite flattering, I must say. By the way, the title of my image, “Colder Than Ice on a Tombstone," is not dedicated to my ex-wife, as some might imagine. It was quite literally how I felt that winter's day in 2008 as I lay on Laurel Hill’s ice-encrusted snow to make the photograph. Quite opposite of the warm and friendly ambiance everyone enjoyed at Laurel's book launch party!

Books by Ed Snyder

Available at
Available at
Further Readings:

175 Years of Reflections, Laurel Hill Cemetery , 1836 – 2011 available at Laurel Hill Cemetery and through its website

Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries by Tom Keels
Photographic Art by Frank Rausch
Rest in Pixeks, Robert Reinhardt's website
Kreilick Conservation, LLC

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Condemned Lafayette Cemetery

As you’ll recall from last week’s blog, Bloody Cemetery Apparition, one of the 47,000 displaced souls from on old condemned South Philly cemetery decided to hang out with my son and I for a spell. The fact that Chris saw it too made me feel a bit more sane.

As I commenced to dig into the history of Lafayette Cemetery (which was across the street from the famous Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak restaurants until 1947), the situation that presented itself appeared quite gruesome. But let me first take you back a couple years for a key part of the puzzle.

My friend Ken lives in Bensalem, PA, on the outskirts of northeast Philadelphia. As he is well aware of my obsession with cemeteries, he often tells me about interesting graveyards he’s seen in his travels. Near Bensalem is the Neshaminy Mall. Across Neshaminy Boulevard from the mall is a field of grass with a small monument in it. Ken stopped to look at it a couple years ago and told me he thought it was there because graves had been found in the field during some excavation.

Fast-forward to 2011 as I’m researching the history of Lafayette Cemetery. Turns out that the site across from the Macy’s side of the mall is where many of the bodies from Lafayette were buried. Happens all the time (or at least it used to) − a cemetery gets relocated, unidentified or unclaimed remains get reburied in a mass grave. Ah, but it turns out that such was not exactly the case here – by finding the site, we only set aside the first vial of the mystery.

Field monument across from Neshaminy Mall
While a good portion of the 47,000 bodies from Lafayette were buried here, they weren’t buried in the most dignified fashion. Consider this excerpt from the October 9, 1988 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Thomas A. Morris, president of Evergreen Memorial Park in Bensalem Township, was contracted to dig up 47,000 sets of remains from the run-down Lafayette Cemetery in South Philadelphia.
Under the terms of a 1946 Common Pleas Court decree, the bodies were to be buried again on 40 of the 156 acres owned by Evergreen, complete with caskets, drainage, new bronze markers, roadways and perpetual maintenance of the grounds. In return, Morris received clear title to the old cemetery property, bounded by Passyunk Avenue and Ninth, 10th, Federal and Wharton Streets."

Not only did Morris not bury the remains in the agreed upon fashion, but he soon sold the South Philly land to investors for $105,000 - who then sold it back to the city for $153,500! This may not seem like a lot of money now, but in 1947, $100,000 had the buying power of just over a million dollars (by 2011 standards).

Unscrupulous financial wheeling and dealing aside, the travesty here is that most of the 47,000 graves were not reburied as they were supposed to be. No tombstones were erected with the graves. What did he do with the old tombstones? We now know that Morris dumped most of the bodies in unmarked trenches on the outskirts of his Evergreen Cemetery property (in Bensalem , PA), as well as some in Bensalem’s Poquessing Creek (according to eyewitnesses!!).

The only reason the public is aware of any of this is because of an accidental unearthing of some wooden coffins on the old Evergreen site in 1988. A strip mall was being built, and the graves were discovered during its construction. Investigations turned up the following:

"After spending a week and a half digging test shafts at the site, officials last week said they had uncovered what probably are 32 trenches, each 300 feet long. Inside the trenches are stacks of wooden boxes, presumably containing most of the remains." (ref)

Are they really resting in peace?
The marker was only placed at the site in 1988 after the mass grave was accidentally discovered. Two bronze plaques flank it, dedicated to Civil War veterans known to have been buried at Lafayette. After Morris’ onerous actions became apparent, investigations continued into his other deal with the city for moving Franklin Cemetery in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. In 1948, Morris was paid another $100,000 to move 8,000 bodies. Of that number, about 5,000 are unaccounted for!

Now realize that in the 1940s and 1950s, the vast majority of people thought stodgy old graveyards were an eyesore and should be eradicated. Victorian architecture, ironwork, and stone carvings were thought to be gauche. Given a cemetery that was a hundred years old where the few descendants that cared (and had the money) had already moved their loved ones out, the public really wasn’t concerned about where the bodies went. I can’t help but wonder now how the owners of those expensive suburban homes near the Neshaminy Mall felt after learning that there were thousands of mouldering corpses in their backyards.

But that’s probably no weirder than human remains under the Capitolo Playground. I mean think about it – there must be some there. When you look at the size of the Bensalem land in question, its hard to believe 47,000 bodies could be buried there − even if the hole was REALLY deep. My guess is that many of the original graves still reside under the Capitolo Playground in South Philly. The City of Philadelphia pays this guy $105,000 to dig up the bodies and rebury them elsewhere, but doesn't check to make sure he actually DID that properly. Then the city buys it back (for $54,000!) to build a playground. He knows they’re just going to pave some areas and plant grass in others – so he has no incentive to fully excavate the grounds and remove every grave!

"In 1951, the Securities and Exchange Commission began to look into Morris' dealings - particularly his apparent habit of selling large blocks of Evergreen Cemetery lots to speculators with the promise that the investors would be able to sell them for huge profits. The sales, according to the SEC, were in the same category as sales of securities, and Morris was not registered to sell securities.

Morris began to pile up debts, with the federal government filing tax liens against Evergreen Memorial Park. In 1958, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission asked that the courts appoint a receiver for Evergreen. In 1959, Evergreen filed for bankruptcy." (ref)

Capitolo Playground
The new owners renamed Evergreen Cemetery Rosedale Memorial Park, which exists on the site to this day. It is a well-maintained active cemetery. I guess after finding all this out I’m surprised that we don’t have MORE ghostly sightings in the area of the Capitolo Playground given the vast amount of graveyard residents who were so vilely disturbed from their final resting places. I think about the guy in the bloody suit who sat down with me and my son Chris, about WHERE his body may have ended up. Maybe he's still searching for it. And where ARE all those thousands of other bodies …?

(The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1988)

Bloody Cemetery Apparition  (Last week's Cemetery Traveler blog posting)

Bensalem, Roots Web

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bloody Cemetery Apparition

People ask me if I see ghosts in cemeteries. I see and hear weird stuff from time to time, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in any clear way. In other words, its not like seeing Casper floating above a headstone.

Back in 2003 I had an interesting experience at Geno’s Cheese Steak restaurant in South Philly - the last place you'd expect to see a ghost. However, the realization of what I had seen only became evident to me last week (November, 2011), a full eight years after the occurrence!

As I was writing last week’s blog, Thanksgiving and Abandoned Cemeteries, I mentioned Capitolo playground in South Philly, and how it used to be a cemetery. I didn’t know this until a year or so ago when I heard the current owner of Pat’s Steaks (I think he’s the grandson of the founder), talk on the radio about how his grandfather used to play baseball with his friends in the old, run-down graveyard. They’d jump over the broken headstones (I can picture them using broken pieces for bases). The cemetery was condemned and plowed over in the mid-1940s so the city could build an actual park and athletic field.

Basketball by night in Capitolo Playground
Capitolo playground is next to Pat’s and Geno’s, the famous cheese steak emporiums in south Philly. The fast-food mavens face each other with folded arms at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue. In the summer of 2003, I had taken my thirteen-year-old son Christopher to Ozzfest and on the way home we stopped at Geno’s Steaks for some fries and a cheesesteak. Directtly across the street from Geno’s outdoor picnic table seating area is the Capitolo Playground. Although it was midnight, the basketball courts were lit up and games were in progress. It’s not unusual to have to stand in a line of twenty people to get waited on here this time of night.

Geno’s is a neon nirvana, a colorful Las Vegas Strip sort of thing. Chris and I found one unoccupied sidewalk picnic table, made ourselves comfortable and began to chow down. We sat across from each other, chatting about the concert. Me trying to subtly elicit an agreement from him that he doesn’t necessarily have to tell all his friends about the topless girls in the audience, him still wide-eye and wired from the experience. I wondered how long it would take this information to get back to his mother and resigned myself to the fact that I would never receive any sort of “Father of the Year” award.

Then the old guy sat down next to me. Not sure where he came from, just off the street on the playground side, out of the dark. I glanced at him and as I said “Hey,” noticing with some horror that he had dried blood all over his suit coat, as well as on his face. His hair was slicked into an old style and his dark suit was way outdated. I looked back at my son and attempted to resume our conversation. Chris would glance at the man, then at me with a slight grin on his face, like “What the F…?”

We continued eating our cheese fries and steaks as the neon glared around us. The man never said a word, just stared ahead. People walked by the condiment station, never once acknowledging the strange guy sitting next to me. Basketball games continued across the street, no one in the line of people at the ordering window not so much as glancing our way. He got up after maybe ten minutes. Chris and I both looked after this tall, thin guy as he slowly walked off into the street, disappearing into the crowd. The clean, old-fashioned yet well-pressed suit, splattered with blood, stands out in my mind more than his face. Can’t much recall what he looked like. Chris and I discussed the weirdness of his presence and wondered what it was all about. Then I forgot about the incident for eight years.

It was a year ago that I discovered the playground across from Pat’s and Geno’s was once a cemetery. Now, sixty-five years later, the site is a full city block comprised of baseball and soccer fields, basketball courts, a little kids’ playground (my two-year-old daughter Olivia loves it), an arts center, and a community garden (ewww…). It wasn’t until I was writing last week’s blog that it dawned on me that the bloody guy may have been one of the restless souls from what used to be called Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery before demolition, c. 1946

In 1946 the city condemned Lafayette Cemetery as part of a multimillion-dollar playground-building project, which ultimately amounted to a huge real estate swindle. The guy with whom the city contracted to remove the bodies and rebury them in the suburbs, didn't actually do what he was supposed to do. The object was for the city to pay him about about $100,000 to do this, then allow him to sell the land back to the city at a $50,000 profit! In 1946, you can imagine that this was an enormous amount of money.  Until 1988, no one really knew (or apparently cared) what he did with the bodies.

Lafayette Cemetery AFTER demolition, c. 1947

I'm going to make you tune in next week to find out what happened to the bodies, but in the meantime, savor this account from the article, "Lafayette Cemetery," published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1988: 
“Joe Giunta, who grew up on the 1300 block of Passyunk Avenue, remembers when, around the time those interred were removed, "a processional with hundreds of men crying" came through the streets. He believes the ceremony was held to honor those who would find final resting places at Evergreen [Cemetery] -- or so many thought.  …The investigation revealed that Lafayette bodies were dumped in unmarked trenches on the Evergreen site, which Bensalem [Pennsylvania] officials said bore little resemblance to a cemetery as most people know it, the article said. The final resting place of many of the original Lafayette inhabitants remains unknown to this day.” (ref)

My guess is that there are a lot of disturbed spirits hanging out around Capitolo Playground - maybe 47,000 of them. One of them, the bloody guy, may have made himself visible to my son and I that night in 2003. Why, I wonder? Catch my blog next week as I continue to unravel the mystery of Lafayette Cemetery.

Temple University Urban Archives
Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, by Thomas H. Keels

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving and Abandoned Cemeteries

Its six a.m. and raining outside. I’m nursing a head cold. Still, I’m thanking the Lord for yet another day above ground. It is Thanksgiving Day, as it happens. Rainy, bleak mornings like this make me think of abandoned graveyards, and how the cold and dismal rain beats down on the old stones. It can be a pitiful sight.

Prior to my cemetery travels, I don’t remember even being aware of the existence of an “abandoned cemetery.” Surely, when I bring up the subject at parties, people look at me funny. You’d be surprised how many folks are unfamiliar with the concept. They might ask, “How do cemeteries become 'abandoned?'" Well, that’s the topic for today, friends. How do they become abandoned? And what happens to them after they attain this substandard status? 

Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia
Well, first off, what do we mean by ‘abandoned?’ Intuitively, we would think no new burials have occurred in decades, and there is no “perpetual care” of the graves. Relatives stopped visiting ages ago. The place becomes overgrown and filled with trash. While this is mostly true, there are actually LEGAL definitions. For instance, state of Missouri law says an abandoned cemetery is one in which no one has been buried for at least 25 years (RSMo 214.131). 

Resurfaced Texas Cemetery
When I was headed for Texas last spring, I went searching for abandoned cemeteries on the Internet, when I realized, “Hey, there are ghost towns throughout the old west!” In many of these deserted places, the last structures standing are – you guessed it – tombstones. A news item was brought to my attention last week by my friend Renee Rausch: a Texas town, complete with cemetery – recently reappeared as the lake covering it dried up in a drought! Tex-Atlantis had been submerged beneath 30 feet of water for the past 50 years! There are little forgotten small-town graveyards still standing all across America,from long-gone 1850s gold and silver mining towns in California and Nevada to long-exhausted coal mining towns in Pennsylvania.

There are probably hundreds of reasons why cemeteries get abandoned − I’ve only run into a few of them. Religious sect cemeteries that are left standing and unattended after the congregation is disbanded (a la B'nai Israel Cemetery in West Philly). Private little family plots on the old homestead (I’ve seen these in Virginia), where the homestead had long ago been divvied up and sold off as small land parcels leaving the little graveyard in the woods. Or the farmer’s field where they’ve plowed around an island of headstones for as long as anyone can recall. Facebook friends tell me these exist all over the country. In some states, you have legal right to cross private property to visit a cemetery that has no public access!

Philadelphia's Mt. Moriah Cemetery
Most people think cemeteries simply exist. You know, just hovering out there on the fringes of polite society. Far from fact. Even if you had come across the reality of an abandoned cemetery, you probably never even thought about how it got that way. People may ask, “How could ‘they’ let it go to pieces like that?” The key word here is ‘THEY.’ In the case of Philadelphia’s most notorious abandoned cemetery, Mount Moriah (which happens to also be the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania), the owners can’t be found. They’ve all long since died and there’s no one left from the original board of directors to take responsibility for the upkeep of this several-hundred-acre overgrown forest. The city has an albatross on its hands.

Sometimes I think we have the same false notions about cemeteries as we have about Thanksgiving (which had nothing to do with turkey and pumpkin pie, or giving thanks, for that matter). Thanksgiving Day was a single event in 1621, one day when politics brought pilgrims and Indians together. Tension and posturing by each group was evident as Pilgrims and Indian tribes attempted to ensure their own survival. What has come to be accepted as a harvest celebration or day of thanks wasn’t even referred to as “Thanksgiving” day until 1841. Thanksgiving as we know it did not become a national holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln could no longer take the relentless badgering by Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. He conceded that it might help national unification after the Civil War. Needless to say, the idea of a New England-originated Thanksgiving Day Holiday was not embraced by Southern states.

But I seem to be getting off track here. I apologize. My narrative may become more linear as the effects of whatever medication I ingested last night wears off. The Native American community calls our Thanksgiving Day their “National Day of Mourning,” the day they mourn the genocide of their ancestors and the theft of their land.  This largely fabricated holiday of ours is a prime example of history re-written to make us feel better about ourselves. Kind of reminds me of the following story.

Franklin Cemetery, c. 1940
When you read about how bodies are reinterred elsewhere so a cemetery can be repurposed, think about what happened to the residents of Philadelphia’s Franklin Cemetery in the 1940s. This cemetery in the city’s Kensington neighborhood was at the center of a political swindle gone bad. Its 8,000 buried bodies disappeared when someone was promised a huge profit if he sold the cemetery land back to the city after the bodies had been removed. An outraged citizen (Margaret Alice Butler) even wrote a song about it! Part of it goes like this:
"I'm telling you, in this day and age,
The dead people aren't even safe.
. . . Everyone's out for that almighty dollar.
Now only if the dead could holler."
What can happen after a cemetery is abandoned is that it can get condemned and then obliterated, if the land has any value. The bodies are (theoretically) moved and the land is repurposed. That’s the case with the photo at the beginning of this article. It may seem shocking, and it is. In 1922, Philadelphia condemned the Hanover Street Burial Ground, and left it up to relatives of the deceased to remove the bodies!

The Business of Running a Cemetery
Unless a non-profit group is responsible for it, a cemetery is run as a business. As such, it is susceptible to all the financial problems any business might experience – a bad year, a drop in popularity, embezzlement of funds by the owners or other financial mismanagement, and of course, over time, it can become filled up, so no more burials are possible!

Discarded tombstones along Delaware River
After cemeteries are abandoned, what happens to them? The Hanover Cemetery situation is one hard dose of reality. A derelict cemetery can be an eyesore, blight on the community. Back in the 1950s, people just were not into cemetery upkeep like they are today – it could easily get plowed over in the name of urban renewal. Sometimes relatives are contacted to move the bodies before the city either paves over the cemetery or moves the bodies to a mass grave somewhere. This happened in many major cities. Both San Francisco and Philadelphia dismantled many old cemeteries (because the land was getting too valuable) and dumped the monuments and grave markers in the local waterways.

Though they seem to be in the limelight right now (with many neighborhood efforts to clean them up and restore them), abandoned graveyards are not a modern issue, a contemporary conundrum. The Hanover photo at top was taken around 1922! By then, the Hanover Street Burial Ground in Philadelphia’s Fish town neighborhood had long been abandoned (it was about 117 years old). (My thanks to Ken Milano for allowing me to use the image from his superb book, Palmer Cemetery and the Historic Burial Grounds of Kensington and Fishtown). Capitola Playground in South Philly and Johnson Cemetery Park (I swear this is really what it’s called, see blog) in Camden Jew Jersey were both originally forgotten cemeteries landscaped over to become neighborhood parks.

Some forsaken cemeteries reside on land that is worthless to real estate developers. These are the ones that languish, and may never get revitalized by any charitable organization. Small ones seem forlorn and pitiful, larger ones can be frightening, like sleeping monsters. The detritus of a civilization, one that doesn’t seem to attach much value to its own history.

As I watch a scavenger outside my kitchen window pick through my trash, I’m taken by its parallel to my interest in abandoned cemeteries. I feel like I’m picking through things other people no longer want. Looking for something that interests me, never really knowing what I might find. The more we educate ourselves about cemeteries, the more can we learn about ourselves – information is preservation. Preserving memory is supposed to be what cemeteries are all about, isn’t it? Well, maybe there are some things we’d just rather not be reminded of.

References and Further Reading:

Ed Snyder has written many Cemetery Traveler blogs about abandoned cemeteries. Here are a few:
New Jersey: Abandoned Cemetery...or just Repurposed?