Saturday, January 14, 2012

What to Do with those Broken Old Tombstones?

I heard something rather shocking the other day from the owner of a farmhouse near an old graveyard in rural Leeds, Maryland. It had to do with old broken tombstones. But just to keep you on edge for a bit, here’s the lead-in to the story.

Rural graveyards can be quite small and are difficult to locate.  Even with a map, you’ll drive right past them. As I attempted to find Leeds cemetery in the rural northeastern part of Maryland, I got turned around a few times going up and down hilly country roads. Finally caught a glimpse of headstones up ahead, but it turned out to be Halloween decorations in someone's front yard! 

Eventually I found the cemetery, just up the road a piece. I saw some old tombstones beyond a very old old stone wall on the north side of Leeds Road, as well as some newer ones beyond a newer stone wall on the south side. One of the most memorable things about the visit was the fact that I found the rusty old gate latch to be rusted OPEN, allowing me easy access to the graveyard.

The other side of the road had newer burials, ranging from perhaps the 1880s to this most recent one, 1984. Most of the monuments and headstones were nondescript, thought someone obviously takes care of the grounds. Everything was neat and the grass was cropped close. Woods lined the back side of the cemetery. 

The older of the two halves of the cemetery, on the north side of the road, has as its showpiece, a walled-in memorial to the founder of the town of Leeds, John Wilson (you can see it at the back in this photo at right).  It’s a very old, small graveyard, only about 100 by 200 feet.

The old barn bordering the cemetery had a big barking dog standing in its doorway. Its owner came home in his pickup truck as I was walking around making photographs. I waved hi, wanting to make sure he knew what I was doing, namely, NOT trespassing on his land. I was hiding behind the cemetery’s lone bit of foliage – a big old holly tree − so the dog would stop barking its fool head off. I was actually trying to photograph the barn, the dog, and the 150-year-old cemetery with the odd juxtaposition of a trailer and a Porche 928.

The dog-Porsche-home-owner came over and began telling me the history of the town and the cemetery. He believed there to be two Civil War soldiers buried beneath the holly tree (it being so florid and close to the ground that it covered whatever grave markers may have been there). Guess he didn’t realize there was also a Revolutionary War Vet here. (SAR stands for "Sons of the American Revolution.") Appropriate that this organization seeks to maintain "respect for our national symbols," as I find this old cemetery to be quite a testament to honoring the dead in a most respectful manner. At least in 2011, this seems to be the case.

Small-town graveyards often have a more interesting past than relatively larger and fancier modern cemeteries. According to this graveyard neighbor, the town’s founder, John Wilson, began by building a wool mill on nearby Little Elk Creek, then a church in 1812 up the road. (Wool from Wilson's mill was used to make a suit for then President Thomas Jefferson.) After a few houses were built, I guess it became a town. As townspeople died, they needed a graveyard. As I search for information on Wilson on the Internet,  I come up with multiple familial connections, Wilson's 'Marriage Register (1832 - 1845), and this fascinating mini-biography which someone at the Maryland Historical Society photocopied in 1970. This local hero came to America from Leeds, England, and named his new town in its honor.

What I took to be a grotto for Wilson's monument, I later found to be the actual foundation of the original church that he built in 1812! Call me crazy, but I love history that you can see and touch!

So if the surrounding stone houses were built around the same time as the church (1812), the cemetery would have been about forty years old by the mid-1800s. This brings me to my point about what some of the old headstones were used for. The house bordering the cemetery (one of the town’s original three dwellings which you can see in the photo at right) belonged to the fellow who told me about the headstones. Around 1860, when bathing became all the rage (indoor plumbing), a septic tank was dug near this house. Guess what they used to line the inside walls of the tank? You guessed it, old broken tombstones!

I've run into all sorts of of uses for headstones in my cemetery travels, but that was a first for me. I did hear of a homeowner near Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia  who has headstones laid into the inside wall of his basement. Even as recent as the 1940s, people just discarded old broken tombstones. There seemed to be little desire for historic preservation.

A friend of mine has his study floor tiled with small white marble headstones from an abandoned nuns’ graveyard. All of uniform size, all beginning the name with “SRM” (for “Sister Mary ____”). Apparently, a nunnery (with a graveyard out back) was abandoned at some point near his home in the 1970s. As the property fell to ruin, one enterprising individual decided to make use of the headstones. My friend is probably the third owner since the installation.

It's not unusual to see discarded headstones cemented into a cemetery's wall, or just stacked to make a wall, as I've seen in Florence Italy. Kind of a shame, really, since some of these are a fabulous testament to the stone carver's art. I mean, just look at the intricate lettering and sculpting of the willow tree on this marble stone from Leeds Cemetery. Still, people find surprising uses for these memorials and monuments to people long forgotten. For example, the paving stones that are arranged in an arc around Johnson Cemetery "Park" in Camden New Jersey, are actually laid-down headstones from African-American Civil War soldiers who are buried under the park. At Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery, you'd be surprised to see that the 'gravel' used to make up the roadways is actually bits of marble monuments and headstones. I've seen the same at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.

When Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery (near Temple University) in 1956, headstones and grave markers from about 28,000 graves were hauled to the Delaware River and dumped in, to be used as "rip rap" (rubble from building and paving demolition commonly used to protect shorelines from water or ice erosion). Ah, but the city planners had further use for these monuments and tombstones (which were whole, not broken up) - they eventually became part of the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (construction was completed in 1976)! You can still walk to the shoreline and still see them sticking out of the water (read about the rip rap atrocity here.) 

So does it come as a tremendous surprise that someone used old broken tombstones to line the wall of a septic tank? Not really. As a society, I guess that's just how we roll sometimes.

Further Reading: