Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Exploding Burial Vaults

Title got your attention, didn’t it? While I’m sure you’ll agree that “Exploding Burial Vaults” would be a GREAT name for a rock band, you’re probably thinking that I simply made the phrase up as an attention-getter. Nah. I’ll come right out and say that this article is actually, really, about a vault that exploded in a cemetery. Well, to be painfully accurate, it was a receiving vault. And you can go there to see the aftermath, now, years later.

Palmer Cemetery's bier house, built 1872
The Palmer Street Burying Ground is one of the quirkiest cemeteries I’ve ever seen. Named after Anthony Palmer, the founder of Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, the cemetery is in Fishtown, the next neighborhood over, near the Delaware River. Its interesting to note that Kensington was in existence before William Penn's arrival in 1681! Palmer founded Fishtown in 1730, with the cemetery dating back to 1732. The place didn’t appear on my radar until about five years ago, but now I find myself visiting it every few months. It’s a nice quiet little community cemetery, lots of trees, walkways, and gentle hills. Its about a city block in size, very well kept. They still have active burials.

You really wouldn’t know how quirky Palmer Cemetery is unless you lived in the neighborhood, or read up on the place. Or walked through it. Only place I've ever seen a wooden tombstone! Or a bier house (shown above, in Frank Furness architectural style). A bier house is not where the locals go to drink (although Fishtown has some mighty fine drinking establishments) - its a structure which houses a bier - a stand on which a corpse, coffin or casket containing a corpse, is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave (Wikipedia). Currently, a cemetery might have a chapel to serve the same purpose.

Also, Palmer is the only cemetery in which I've seen hundreds of iron burial markers just stacked against the fence and propped up against trees - the poor man's grave marker. These things are just jabbed into the ground at the gravesite, but over time, I suppose they get removed and tossed around. I'm sure no one really knows where in the cemetery these people are actually buried.

Difficult to say how many burials there are in Palmer, though the estimate is as high as 50,000. Hardly seems to be enough room for that many people, and the grave markers don't seem to be overly crowded. Well, over the course of 280 years, records of locations get lost, caskets get buried at different depths, and so on.

Quite possibly, the quirkiest thing about Palmer is that its free to be buried there - as long as you're a resident of the neighborhood. From the news article, "The Plot Thickens  - Locals are dying to get into this Fishtown cemetery:"

"But even more intriguing than the souls spending eternity here are the unconventional dictates by which this operation is and has always been run. Like most other entitlements, the right to be buried in Palmer comes with strings attached. First, you must be living in Fishtown at the time of your death. Specifically, you must be living within the original boundaries of Fishtown-York Street, Frankford Avenue and the Delaware River." 
Also, it's also up to you to have yourself or loved one buried. The official rule is that you walk around the cemetery with a long iron bar. When you find what you think is an open space, you're supposed to ram the bar down into the ground to see if you hit any coffins. If not, the space is yours! I swear to god this is true.

Last winter I happened to be at the Kensington community center for a chili cook-off, when I saw a guy with stacks of books on a table. I went over and found the book not to be a cookbook. Its title? "Palmer Cemetery and the Historic Burial Grounds of Kensington and Fishtown." The fellow signing copies was the author, Ken Milano. I bought one and we chatted a bit, as I was anxious to learn more about the Palmer Burying Ground.

Account of the Exploding Receiving Vault

For the uninitiated, a receiving vault was a common structure in cold-climate cemeteries in the 1800s (when graves were manually dug). If a body had to be interred during the winter months, the building served as temporary storage for bodies, until spring, when the ground thawed.  The big marble "Palmer" stone that sits in the grass at the corner of Palmer and Belgrade streets is the only thing left of the receiving vault after it exploded. It originally was the "ornamental frontispiece" on top of the roof (ref).

The vault was erected around 1870, a rather large brick and marble structure built partially underground. Surviving records show that up to ten bodies were stored in it at one time. So how did it come to explode, you might ask? Let's let Ken Milano tell us in his own words (from his book at the top of this article):

"The vault lasted just over a century. In 1975, with a build-up of kerosene fumes along with old rags being stored in the vault, plus the participation of some juvenile delinquents, the vault exploded. The roof caved in and the PALMER stone crashed to the ground. The explosion destroyed the vault. The remains were shoveled into the underground portion of the vault, and it was buried over...the PALMER stone was moved to different places in the cemetery and then finally to its present location."
So those are just a few choice observations I've made regarding the Palmer Street Burying Ground. As I'm sure you'll agree, it has had a long and colorful history, which the neighborhood is actively trying to preserve. Work seems to be constantly in progress as walkways are repaired, old tombstones are patched together, and trees are pruned. Its obviously a source of community pride, and it does my heart good to see it!