Monday, March 21, 2011

Abandoned No More - The Knights of Pythias Cemetery

The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery is an unusual gem of a place located in the Northwood section of Philadelphia. It has until recently been shrouded in mystery, not to mention an overgrown forest. I was surprised to see it referred to as “abandoned” on the Internet, since I thought for sure there were active burials occurring there. So I needed to make a road trip to see for myself (which really only amounts to a half hour drive from my house).

Upon my arrival on a wintry crisp Saturday afternoon, I found the place closed (front gates locked). However, the front left side of the cemetery was open as it bordered the driveways of some houses. So I could get in without scaling a wall—always a good thing. As far as I could see, the cemetery was well-maintained and orderly, with a big old house in the middle of the grounds, which appeared to be the office. No one about, so I went walking around. What struck me as being extremely odd were the piles of tombstones along the left front border of the cemetery, near the homes where I had entered. These scores of headstones, each with a pink ribbon tied around it, ranged in date from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. I assumed they had been gathered from the grounds of the cemetery, but why? Curious. Looking out over the densely populated (with grave markers and monuments) grounds, it didn’t appear that any stones were missing. Where did they come from?

I went walking through the cemetery and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a grassy hillock with a receiving vault built into it. Not too unusual a sight except for one thing—this was the SAME receiving vault I photographed back around 2004 when I was just starting my cemetery exploration endeavors. (I refer to this initial visit in my blog posting “Freddie Krueger,” an experience that was truly a Nightmare on Adams Avenue.) It would be hard to mistake this receiving vault for some other one, as it had this strange coat of arms on its front.  (the weird colored infrared photo at top was taken in 2004). The Coat of Arms is that of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that became associated with Greenwood Cemetery soon after its inception in 1869. As befitting any association of its kind (e.g. Masons or Odd Fellows), the Pythians acquired graves within the cemetery for use by its members.

In 2004, while making the infrared photograph of the vault, I was accosted by a bib-overall-clad, pitchfork wielding character who kept demanding of me, “Are you with us, or against us?” The outcome of that tense and prolonged interrogation was that his company had just purchased the (at that time, truly overgrown and seemingly abandoned) cemetery and was facing stiff opposition from the local community. Why, you might wonder? Do Philadelphians prefer their cemeteries abandoned, desecrated, and overgrown? Certainly there are enough of these around to make one believe that (see links at end). 

Why would there be opposition to anyone taking over an abandoned cemetery? I mean, along with the pitchfork guy, other workers appeared to be chopping out the trees and cutting weeds, essentially cleaning the place up. Is that a bad thing? Before we get into that, why would anyone BUY a cemetery in the first place? How is that even allowed?! Does ownership entitle you to any gold, silver, antiquities, gems, or jewelry buried with the bodies? Do you own the bodies themselves? I know a fellow whose den floor is inlaid with dozens of white marble headstones. Decades before he bought the (18th century) house, a prior owner had collected the symmetrical and uniformly-sized stones from an abandoned nuns’ cemetery that was situated behind a closed-down convent. Is that right? Would anyone care if you collected all the headstones from an old, out-of-use graveyard and used the stones for a walkway in your garden? (Someone actually kind of did this at Johnson Cemetery “Park,” in Camden, New Jersey, as described in another of my blogs, “Abandoned Cemetery … or just Repurposed?”)

After my confrontation with the lunatic farmhand in 2004, he eventually told me that his company had purchased Greenwood Cemetery and was planning to build a crematorium on the site. Apparently, there’s money in that (for instance, crematories will contract with the city morgue to cremate the bodies of unidentified/unclaimed bodies). The locals were not amused. So now, seven years on, it appears that the crematorium has not been built, but the cemetery appears to be entrenched in a restoration project. This is likely the reason behind the piles of pink ribbon-tied headstones bordering the cemetery—they must be marked in some way for future placement. The receiving vault was shored up with timbers and was undergoing some sort of makeover, while the old house in the middle of the grounds had been completely restored.

About half of Greenwood’s 44 acres has had its wild trees cut back or pulled out, grass is cropped close, and there isn’t a weed to be seen. The monuments and gravestones in this front half of the cemetery looked to be in fine shape. The back twenty (acres) are still a forest grown around the monuments, however--an odd inner city wood bordered on one side by rowhomes, another by a corporate complex, and the other two by busy avenues. As I made my way through the thicket during another winter visit, I was startled to see a twenty foot high vibrant green glade of bamboo crowding out a fifty foot square section of headstones! The bamboo stalks were so close together, you couldn’t walk through. On seeing the intricately carved yet broken marble coping surrounding forgotten family plots (above right), you half expect to come upon Jude Hawley making repairs. Hawley is the enigmatic stonecarver character in Thomas Hardy’s darkest novel, Jude the Obscure. (This beautifully written book is a covert treatise on flawed Victorian sensibilities.) Like Jude, Greenwood cemetery seems to have suffered the same fate at the hands of a cruel and uncaring world: “…whoever or whatever our foe may be, I am cowed into submission. I have no more fighting or strength left; no more enterprise. I am beaten, beaten! …

The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery had been so badly beaten, in fact, that at one point the Knights themselves attempted to extricate themselves from the enterprise.

So what’s the story with this half-restored Victorian cemetery? Intrigued, I decided to do some investigating. Greenwood had been on my mind for years; it took time, but as Keith Richards says about songwriting, “If you chase a song far enough, you’re gonna corner it.


While half the cemetery is still a forest, it appears that it is being slowly restored to some semblance of its original splendor. What had been the decrepit Knights of Pythias Greenwood Cemetery is now a quaint Victorian garden cemetery, with gently rolling slopes and landscaped roadways. Gone are the abandoned cars and rusty household appliances, the headstones are upright and clean. No longer do the Knights seek to remove their name, upset over the declining conditions in the cemetery.

To my amazement, the cemetery now has a website, which describes the transformation in detail. Its a rather odd scenario. The previous owners gave up on the crematorium idea when community opposition proved to be too strong.  After that, they let the cemetery go to pot again until the adjacent business, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) Eastern Regional Medical Center, took over, in conjunction with the Friends of Greenwood.  In exchange for taking part of the cemetery grounds to use as a parking lot (!), the Center agreed to relocate 2400 bodies from that section (to other areas of Greenwood), clean up the rest of the cemetery, and restore the old farmhouse on the property. The Knights seem to be happy with this as the official name remains “The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery.”

Benjamin Rush Farm House
The house in the center of the cemetery, which dates back to the 1830s, has been restored. During the project, it was renamed “Greenwood Estate at Rush Farm,” as the land on which the cemetery resides had been owned in the 1700s by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of America’s founding fathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Greenwood Cemetery may not look exactly like its original 1869 self, but thanks to the involvement by the CTCA, it is on its way to becoming a viable cemetery again. Restoration continues, with the published intention of the new owners to treat its 20,000 inhabitants and their descendants with due respect and to make the cemetery a safe and picturesque memorial park. Whether for profit or some altruistic reason, this long-ignored Victorian-era resting place is being restored.

In closing, I found this interesting tidbit in the FAQ section on Greenwood's website:
Q: Do the owners intend to try and build a crematorium on the property after it has been revitalized?
A: Absolutely not.

Further Reading:

Friends of Greenwood
Testimonials to the Restoration of Greenwood
FAQ from Kof P Greenwood Website
Fascinating “Burial Relocation Process” at Greenwood (Powerpoint)
Restoration of Benjamin Rush House at Greenwood

Abandoned Cemeteries in the Philadelphia Area:
Knights of Pythias/Greenwood (back when it was abandoned)
Johnson Cemetery (1) (2)
Mount Moriah (1) (2)
Evergreen Cemetery
Mount Peace Cemetery

Knights of Pythias Website
Knights of Pythias video
Pythagoras and the Origin of the Pythians

The Knights of Pythias

The Knights of Pythias organization is associated with Pythagoras, the mathematician (I can feel your body tense as you read this, thinking back on those horrible moments in high school geometry class when you were forced to learn the nuances of the Pythagorean Theorem). But it makes sense, right? Funerary monuments and headstones are all angular and symmetrical, so why not worship the almighty angle? Actually, Pythagoras (582 – 500 BC) is ALSO known as the Father of Greek Philosophy, whose presocratic principles the Knights adopted: "FRIENDSHIP, CHARITY and BENEVOLENCE." (The American Cancer Society, by the way, is the National Charity of the Knights of Pythias, which may be part of the reason the Pythians approved of the purchase of Greenwood by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.)

According to, this Pythagorean Brotherhood was actually the first fraternal Order to be formed by an Act of Congress, at the suggestion of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1864. The Order began during the Civil War, and its founder, Justus H. Rathbone, believed that it might do much to heal the wounds and allay the hatred of civil conflict. (Rathbone had been inspired by a play by the Irish poet John Banim about the legend of Damon and Pythias, students of the Pythagorean school of philosophy). With 2011 being the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, it is most appropriate to quote President Lincoln:

“The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be. It breathes the spirit of Friendship, Charity and Benevolence. It is one of the best agencies conceived for the upholding of government, honoring the flag, for the reuniting of our brethren of the North and of the South, for teaching the people to love one another, and portraying the sanctity of the home and loved ones. I would suggest that these great principles by perpetuated and that you go to the Congress of the United States and ask for a charter, and so organize on a great scale throughout this nation, and disseminate this wonderful work that you have so nobly started. I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work."

The suggestion made by the President was adopted. An application was made to Congress for a charter, and the Order of Knights of Pythias was the first American Order ever chartered by an Act of the Congress of the United States.