Friday, May 6, 2011

How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed

Concrete crypt being removed from Monument Cemetery, 1956
By the summer of 1956, the job of clearing Monument Cemetery was well under way. Bodies had already been removed from one section of the old grave yard. At that time, the University referring to it as PROGRESS, stated that "the old cemetery...will provide much needed parking space by fall." - Things that Aren't There Anymore

Betsy Ross Bridge in background
After my photo excursion to find the last remains of Philadelphia’s Monument Cemetery, I was overwhelmed with questions – my own as well as those posed by my readers. Questions like, how could some entity (Temple University, in this case) just buy a cemetery and build a parking lot over it? Was the cemetery actually abandoned?  Supposedly, all the bodies were removed, but how did they do that? And the families were okay with it? When this happened in 1956, the cemetery was over a century old – did they contact the relatives of the 28,000 people buried there? Why were all the monuments and headstones dumped into the Delaware River? I get a weird feeling now whenever I drive over the Betsy Ross Bridge, like its somehow sacrilegious that granite tombstones are part of its foundation.

They say the universe is finite, contained, and searchable, so, in an attempt to find answers, I paid a visit to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. I knew from past visits here and to the Library Company of Philadelphia next door, that they had certain records related to area cemeteries. Once I got into the Historical Society to begin my research, I was amazed to find hundreds of bound volumes (handwritten as well as copied) of burial records and tombstone inscriptions from more cemeteries than I thought existed, along with all their original deeds, charters, and annual reports. There were also vintage brochures and guidebooks (c. 1850) printed by the large Victorian garden cemeteries for advertising purposes. You can actually peruse these wonderful parchment-like and very fragile volumes from the Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mt. Vernon cemeteries in Philadelphia. Wonderful lithographs of monuments, chapels, and gatehouses adorn the pages, many of which are either no longer in existence or are so weather-worn as to be barely recognizable. It’s obvious that such documentation is necessary for accurate restoration of cemetery sculpture and monuments. After about half an hour of searching, I came upon a three-volume set of documentation related to Monument Cemetery.

In the set of burial records were tombstone inscriptions, an alphabetical listing of those interred, and legal documentation for the property. At the end of Vol. I, there were dozens of copied newspaper clippings related to the battle to close the cemetery (mid-1950s). As I read through these clippings, certain things became clear
I better understood how a cemetery could be made to disappear.

In a nutshell, the cemetery had not been abandoned, it was destroyed. Bodies were reinterred elsewhere and most of the tombstones and monuments were dumped into the Delaware River, to be used as foundation rock for when the city built the Betsy Ross Bridge. In my previous blog,
The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery,” I wrote about my excursion to find the stones, which are visible at low tide. Visible with a bit of work, that is. You can’t just look down into the water and see them as you drive across the bridge.

How did Temple University acquire Monument Cemetery

As the universe expands, so do universities. In the 1950s, Temple was developing itself into a commuter school, and needed more parking – and those 15 acres across the street were just being wasted on a cemetery. They’d actually been trying to acquire the cemetery since 1928, but continually met with resistance from the cemetery’s owners. 


Nearly bankrupt cemetery railroaded into oblivion?

According to records, the owners of Monument Cemetery only had about $11,000 in assets by 1953. This was barely enough income for the owners to provide necessary maintenance to the buildings and upkeep to the graves. With no new burials since 1929, there had been no income for 24 years (there was no available burial space left). The cemetery had been in business for 114 years, and its 15 acres were filled to capacity with 28,000 graves. As a result, the cemetery physically deteriorated to the point where it invited vandalism. The owners were actively trying to sell it, but were “insensed” at potential buyers’ (including Temple) plans for the land. Eventually Temple lobbied the city government to condemn it, and ended up acquiring it after that occurred. According to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin of May 28, 1953, public hearings were held in which “a number of persons” testified that “the cemetery was now a haven for rats, criminals, tramps, and sex offenders.” (Kind of sounds like the North Philly that we know today.)

It appears that legal title passed from the owners of Monument Cemetery to the City of Philadelphia, but I could find no record of the amount the owners were compensated. Once a government determines that private property is needed for the completion of a public project (Temple is a public, i.e. state school), that property is likely going to be lost (ref). The property owner is entitled to fair compensation for the loss, but it appears that Monument’s owners received far less (if anything). Kind of like when my grandmother's house was taken through "eminent domain" by a local municipality so that
a playground could be built. 

Estimated value of the land in the part of Philadelphia in which Monument Cemetery was situated was about $40,000 per acre, making the cemetery’s 15 acres worth about $600,000. Temple had previously stated that it could not afford to buy the land at that price. As Lawnview Cemetery (in Rockledge, a Philadelphia suburb) was later awarded a $700,000 contract by the city for “the transfer and perpetual care of the bodies,” I find it hard to believe the city paid Monument’s owners anything for the land.


Did they actually remove the bodies?

Well, if you can believe the newspapers, yes. But who knows? The crane in the top photo shows a concrete crypt being hoisted out of the ground, but what of the thousands of older burials that only had wooden coffins? I began to wonder what sort of notifications were sent to families whose loved one were buried there… eviction notices? Did they board up the periphery of the cemetery so people couldn’t see the coffins coming out of the ground? Did people care? I had to find out, and as I could find nothing on the topic online, I hoped the Historical Society would provide. 

The dozens of newspaper clippings mentioned above cover the final two years of the cemetery’s existence – from 1954 (when its fate was mired in political intrigue) to 1956 (when the cemetery was condemned, given to Temple, and dug up). During the time that the cemetery’s owners were trying to sell it in above-board fashion, Temple had made low offers, and was turned down. In its relentless quest for the land, Temple resorted to political tactics to have the ground condemned, while maintaining an air of empathy by declaring that if it acquired the cemetery, it would also have to dig up Temple's founder, Dr. Russell Conwell, and his wife, who were buried there. In the end, they moved those graves across the street near Conwell Hall (where I used to go to pay my daughter’s tuition).

How were lot holders notified?

Apparently, the majority were not. But first, let’s do some math. In 1954 when the cemetery owners sent out mailings to lot holders announcing the likelihood that graves would have to be moved when the cemetery was sold, they only had reliable contact information for 748 families - out of 28,000 burials. Of these 748, only 400 lot holders responded to mailings – 300 of whom met to vote on which cemetery they would want their ancestors moved to. Two cemeteries bid on the contract − Lawnview Cemetery and Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, PA. Lawnview was chosen after a nine-month debate, mainly because it was closer to Monument Cemetery (more convenient for the lot holders) and it would charge less for removal of the bodies.  

So only 300 family plots were moved to Lawnview along with their monuments and headstones. I would assume that some of the remaining 100 of the contacted lot holders had their loved ones moved privately to different cemeteries at their own expense. But the vast majority of the 28,000 bodies, it seems, went unclaimed

In order to clear the land of human remains and stonework, 28,000 bodies had to be re-located, about 20,000 of which were unclaimed. These 20,000 – a staggering number − were the ones that were quietly dumped into a large mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery. Their monuments and any of the elaborately carved stonework that hadn't been claimed by relatives were sold to developers, and hauled to the river to be used as part of the foundation to build the Betsy Ross Bridge (construction was completed in 1976). Monuments, including major works of art by 19th century sculptors, were dumped into the river to be used as “riprap” (granite or concrete rubble from building and paving demolition commonly used to protect shorelines from water or ice erosion).

Did the public care what was going on?

Historian Tom Keels says, “…in the 1950s it was, 'This is an old moldy Victorian cemetery. Who cares.'"

“The way cemeteries and their occupants were treated after World War II was shocking. The city was in flux. It was losing jobs, it was losing people and there was a decision early on that the city was going to redevelop at least its central area. It was going to reinvent itself as a neo-colonial city. Society Hill and Independence Mall were constructed, while hundreds of Victorian buildings were razed ‘because 18th century was good, Victorian was bad.’ Unfortunately, this extended to many Victorian cemeteries.Tom Keels

Forgotten graves?  Not totally.

But what of the people whose loved ones were buried at Monument, who were not aware of its closing? Many of my current readers are appalled by what happened to this cemetery, shocked by the callousness of a modern society. Looking back, it seems that it all occurred precisely because of the modernism of our society and how we value “progress.” It all sounds like Temple and the City of Philadelphia tied up Monument Cemetery in a neat little package and everyone was happy. Today, it’s a different story, as I come upon these chilling posts on the reader forum of

"they say there is a mass grave .. where is it and where are the babies that were buried there as there was so many of my family buried there too..why didn't anyone fight it and how could they get away with this? i can't believe the things i read about it as i look for my family .."

"hello thank you i went to find a grave and lawnview and typed in my family name but nothing..came up. do they have a list from monument and where all the people from monument were reburied. at least they could have done that. so many of my family was buried there. a lot of babies from years ago. a few made it to arlington but not many. thank you and i don't know how they could do things like this ..isn't anything sacred..? i sure appeciate your help. thank you again  -alice"

"Monument Cemetery. This is where my ancestors-Wareham- had a large family plot. It was removed and built over by Temple University. What a shame ! If you are connected to this family, please reply. Jeanie "

More about the
1956 dumping of tombstones into the river.

As I mentioned in my previous blog posting, “The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery,” my friend Leo and I trekked out to the river last month and found the site of the discarded tombstones from Monument Cemetery. We only actually found about 50 exposed whole grave markers, so the rest must must be either buried, drowned, or reduced to rubble. When you think about it, roughly twenty thousand bodies were unclaimed, so there had to be several thousand gravemarkers discarded.

Sartain Monument (Univ of Penn)
Supposedly, John Sartain's Egyptian-style monument was dumped into the Delaware and is now part of the bridge. Sartain was one of the original designers of Monument Cemetery; he and his family were buried there. Sartain’s is not a name with which I was familiar, but to whom the literary world owes a debt of gratitude. He was Edgar Allen Poe’s friend, colleague, and publisher while Poe lived in Philadelphia.

John Sartain was a true renaissance man – publisher, engraver, artist, and architect. He was responsible for the design of Monument Cemetery’s gatehouse and the cemetery’s immense (over 70 feet high) central monument to George Washington and General Lafayette (seen at left being dismantled). According to Sartain’s autobiography, The Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, “Monument Cemetery” derived its name from this monument. Sartain’s own memorial (seen above in front of the base of the Washington monument in a 1954 photograph) lives with the fishes - supposedly dumped as unceremoniously as the rest of the stones.

Sartain's Union Magazine featured the first publication of Poe’s haunting poem, Annabel Lee, which is about a rivalry that resulted in a watery death. Makes you wonder what horrors Poe could have conjured with the idea of unearthing 28,000 graves and dumping their tombstones into the river. But then he probably would never have conceived of anything so bizarre – or did he?

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre

In this kingdom by the sea. 

- from Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe

References for Further Reading:


  1. Several mid-20th century books by Temple U. tell of its heartless view of the surrounding neigborhood (and its buildings and Monument Cemetery)--a view that lasted until the 1990s, if not later:
    --Robert Livingston Johnson, Seven Short Years (c. 1948).
    --Robert Livingston Johnson, Minds at Work: A Story of Intellectual Endeavor at Temple University (c. 1950).
    --Robert Livingston Johnson, The Case for Temple University: One of America's Most Unusual Institutions! (New York, NY: Newcomen Soc. in North America, 1954).

  2. On the other hand, if the cemetery couldn't afford to maintain the grounds and had no new income coming in - didn't the city & temple do them a favor by moving the interred to grounds that could be maintained? It's easy to say the owners got nothing, but if the cemetery was worth $600K but it cost $700K to move the bodies, the cemetery was actually worth -$100K, since there was no new revenue coming in.

    I understand that moving a cemetery for parking seems crass, but the world belongs to the living and the not-yet-living - and Temple has been and remains the most-affordable, best-hope for higher Education in Philadelphia. Isn't that worth more than a decaying cemetery?

    (I do think the using of the headstones for the foundation of the bridge is ridiculous, I don't see why they couldn't have been moved to the new cemetery)

    Thanks for the great article!

  3. Thank you both for you highly interesting and opposing comments. I can't really be THAT hard on Temple since both my oldest daughter and I went to school there. The fact is, moving old cemeteries back in the 1940s was being done like this all over the U.S. - and no one cared. Society just has a different sensibility about such things now. We look back and wonder about us.

  4. Thanks for an interesting article. I researched this topic several years ago when I discovered my ggg grandfather had been dissinterred from Monument and moved to Lawnview but as you mention, there is not a lot of information about this. My ggg grandfather was a civil war vet. He was with the 82nd PA Infantry and lost an arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He had a government issued VA headstone when he was buried in Monument that was, I suppose, dumped in the river with the rest.

    My husband and I visited the dumping ground several years ago (though we reached it via jetski rather than by land). We photographed many of the same headstones you show in your article.

    I have found the records of his disinternment at the Phila Historical Society which showed his original plot in Monument and the plot he was moved to in Lawnview. I visited Lawnview and they tell me that it is not a mass grave, though it appears so since there are so few markers. They assure me that they can locate his plot accurately and I hope this is true, as I intend to order him a new VA marker and hope it gets placed on the right plot in Lawnview. This is a sad story. Thanks for shedding light on it.

  5. I have read that the German Lutheran Cemetery at 31st & Lehigh suffered the same fate in the 1950s with bodies being moved to Philadelphia Memorial Park in Chester County. Apparently the CC Historical Society has some records so it's on my research list.

  6. Great article and wonderful research! It is truly a shame that this happened, but it did all over the United States and may very well happen again. We manage a cemetery in my hometown having several souls interred with in having been moved in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Sketchy records exist. Mostly such as you have presented via Newspaper articles. Some Tombstones were also relocated. Some bodies were also, some were just a scoop of dirt from the grave area as no remains were left. We have recently discovered that a Revolutionary War Soldier was relocated to our Cemetery, but none of his Military Record followed his removal and reburial. Cemeteries are not profitable, many such as ours are non-profit, and struggle to meet annual financial obligations. We do have undeveloped land, and many lots to sell, but with cremations so popular and no true PA State regulations of the disposal of the remains, the future is as grim as some of the monuments.

  7. They didn't move all those bodies. Anybody who understands how construction and refuse industries operate (hint- Mafia) knows they didn't bother with detail. Or at least for me it's a gut wrenching, all knowing feeling of what really occurred here. The desecration of the graves and grave markers - not to mention Temple University and the City's behavior - it's all nothing short of astounding.

    My condolences to the descendants who have the misfortune of finding out about this. And I suppose those descendants who never learn of this are just plain lucky.

  8. Just read the article and have some interesting facts to add. Maybe you can tell me how this happened. My ancestors were buried there starting in 1887. The article stated that the cemetery was closed in 1929 but I have 2 relatives that were buried there in 1940 and 1944. Also on the burial record is the burial of another relative in 1958. After I called the Lawnview Cem, I was told my relative was buried at Lawnview, even though it was written on the Mouement Record page. Not sure I am going to get any straight answers from the person in charge of the info about reinterment.
    Found your article very informative and motivated me to do additional research.
    I only hope my relatives are truly resting at peace.

    1. Hi there. The cemetery was supposedly "full" by 1929, but that may only mean full to people other than those who had purchased family plots. Your relatives who were buried in 1940 and 44 may have gone into a family plot. As for the 1958 burial, that sounds like a mistake. I believe the cemetery was gone at that point.

  9. Hi Ed, just read this, after reading your FB piece about it, and am just appalled. Ok, they may have been near bankruptcy, but certainly the city of Philadelphia was not, and could have intervened in the public and historic interest. But maybe the city hall politicians were so busy skimming off city revenues that they couldn't be bothered ? Or am I just being cynical ? How horribly tragic it must be to see those stones at the water's edge at low tide.

  10. Today there is no parking in the Norris, Berks, 17th location... Actually there is a road that runs right through that area called Monument. All of this land is home to many students. Temple is no longer a commuter school and is heavily becoming a school with students living on or slightly off campus. So, it's a little disturbing to think that student's are living on what used to be the burial of some historical figures of the past.

  11. As a member of the American Friends of Lafayette with members in 48 States and two countries my interest is in both John Sartain’s monument and the Lafayette/Washington Monolith. My question would be in regards to the huge bronze plaques on the Monolith and the Bronze medallions on Sartain’s. Have you run across them or any information as to what happened to them? I doubt they were thrown into the river and I hope they weren’t sold for scrap medal as so often happens.
    Cur Non? (Why Not?) Lafayette replied in 1777

  12. I am overwhelmed with sorrow. I just found out that my great grandfather was buried in Monument in 1898. I confirmed he is in the "common grave" in Lawnview. Finding out about the stones in the river, and the seemingly slip shod manner of trying to find owners/relatives of the deceased makes me think twice about my final resting place. Hopefully, we will all pass on the respect due the deceased and not forget their final resting place.What a wrenching story this was. Thanks for all your research. Sally G.

    1. You should do your research before blogging.The bodies weren't "Dumped" in a mass grave. The cemetery that they went to has all the records and can tell a relative exactly where their loved ones are. As for the stones, the city had a stone dealer take the stones out of the cemetery before the move started, and gave them permission to discard them.

    2. Good thing you're Anonymous. It's so easy to homogenize such an act of "vandalism" supported by the city of Philadelphia, as with several of the old cemeteries. It's nothing less than a disgrace.

      You're head is stuck from where you dump.

  13. Just completed a search for my maternal gg-grandparents (Berghauser) and discovered they were buried in Monument Cemetery. Further searching for the cemetery just brought me to this blog. Shocked and disgusted to say the least.

    I also recently discovered my (6x) great-grandfather (Captain John Ashmead), a naval ship captain during the Revolution, was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery. Another fiasco. In fact, I've been trying for TWO YEARS to get confirmation that he and his family are buried there. More shock and disgust.

    If anyone thinks they can help, I'd appreciate it.

    Tom (

    1. Tom, Mount Moriah Cemetery fell into great disrepair. There is a group working to reclaim the cemetery and they are very helpful when they can. They have a webpage and Facebook group (they are very active on this group page). I listed both below for you so that maybe they can help you:

  14. Well. Damn. I am LIVID! Thank you for telling us all this. My family is, was, there I just found out. It makes me want to vomit and makes me feel ashamed to be human. As someone said, the way way a nation treats its dead and its dogs is the way the nation goes. God help us all. But thank you for the detailed story and your work on it.

  15. Ohmgosh! Thank you for your research and great information. It saddens me to see those headstones & markers used for rip-rap. I wonder if it is possible for the descendants of those headstone to claim them. I sure would try if I found my 4x great grandfather and his children's markers. Make me want to take a trip to Philly and walk the shoreline at low tide.

  16. I was a Temple student when bodies, aka remains, were removed from Monument. Even then, Temple was a commuting school. It was private, not a state university. Not all gravestones were removed. I remember marble ones being smashed to pieces by workers with sledge hammers. I also remember wooden coffins being opened by workers with hooks. The high water table had flooded these coffins and what remained of the bodies were extracted. I assume the wooden coffins, or what's left of them, remain underground to this day.

  17. Sad..Looking for 3x Grandmother, only to find she is a parking lot! We will never know for sure!

  18. Wonderful, comprehensive info and well-written - thank you for your efforts. I have several ancestor families buried in Monument Cemetery in the later 1800s - and were subsequently moved to Lawnview. Lawnview has the wonderful original records from Monument, including transfer dates and locations of family remains. I was able to visit, and with the help of staff, locate the resting places and uncover (and photograph) the bronze nameplates for each plot lying just under the grass (these graves are in the part of Lawnview that is a grassed lawn area with no above ground markers allowed). Worth a visit to see both the space and records - and well maintained. For those of you searching for family - keep looking - the records are out there. And remember, less than 15% of history records are actually online - so make a call or visit if you can - the rewards are boundless!

  19. There is a video on YouTube about this. It is titled “Tombstones Dumped Along The Riverbank” on the Mobile Instinct channel.

  20. I had an ancestor and his brother's family buried in Monument Cemetery in what was termed the family "residence." I located their grave in Lawnview and had a flat stone marker installed. The area is entirely grass with no raised memorials and very few flat ones. The birth year of my ancestor was 1787 that I thought would give the stone cutter some interest.