Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas in Wilmington

I bought my car a new water pump for Christmas - a surprise gift for both of us. It had been slowly leaking coolant for the last few months so I’ve been slowly considering having it checked out. It was one of those situations familiar to any car owner - you expect it to be a leaking hose and it turns out to be a $450 repair.

Riverview Cemetery, Wilmington, Delaware
Anyhow, I have my car maintained by Sports Car Service, a Saab specialty shop in Wilmington, Delaware. Its twenty-five miles from where I live in Philly, but tearing down I-95 in a turbo Saab puts me there in an almost embarrassingly short amount of time. I typically take my camera with me and walk around the neighborhood while my car is being attended to. There’s also a cemetery about a quarter mile away. (Put me in a cemetery with a camera and you’ve just killed a quick hour!)

When they broke the news to me that I needed a new water pump, I was easting brefass at McDonald’s down the road. Not my first choice, but since the wonderful greasy-spoon old Post House Diner across the street closed (!) since my last visit, I had no choice. The Post House was actually a Pony Express stop back in the 1800s, if you can believe that! I don’t think they’d scraped the grease off the grills since that time (which, of course, added extra flavor to the food). So there I was with an extra two hours on my hands. May as well walk up to Riverview Cemetery, there on Market Street in Wilmington. Restaurants may close up shop, but you can rely on a cemetery to keep its doors open for you.

Riverview is actually about two miles from the Delaware River, so there is no actual river view. It’s bisected by North Market Street, the north side of the cemetery being newer with some grand monuments and mausoleums. The south side is older, with quite meager stones and grave markers. I’d never spent much time on the south side, but seeing as I had a couple hours, why not?

Dupont Nemours Mansion, Wilmington, DE (ref)
The old office/gatehouse on the south side was being renovated, getting a new roof for Christmas. The entire cemetery was under new management, as the signs indicated. They’d apparently also participated in a local city garden competition, which tells you the new owners are serious about the upkeep of the cemetery (with all the local Dupont family estates, competition in this regard must be rather stiff!).

Old and new (condos) construction, Riverside Cemetery, Wilmington, DE

Riverview has been in operation since 1872, with a few glitches along the way. Most recently, the cemetery had been abandoned (I’m guessing for at least a decade between the mid- 1990s to the mid 2000s). In 2009 it was taken over by a Friends group which is, of course, the best Christmas present an abandoned cemetery can receive. Since then, it has been cleaned up and there are active burials occurring.

I remember walking around the newer side of the cemetery ten years ago and the weeds were a couple feet high. There are early-2000s accounts on the web of descendants trying in vain to get information about family interred at Riverview. Supposedly, people were being buried with no records being kept at all, and several homeless people were sleeping in the cemetery. Typical occurrences in an abandoned cemetery. All that appears to have changed.

It was cold on water pump day as I walked around the old side of Riverview Cemetery, so I only spent about an hour there. However, something unusual caught my eye the moment I set foot on the grounds. There were many – and I mean scores of − old marble headstones lying face up in the ground, carefully excavated out of the sod. Some were flush with the grass, with their edges carefully weed-whacked, others obviously dug out of several inches of soil and cleaned off – possibly for the first time in decades.

Excavated headstone, Riverview Cemetery
It’s not unusual to see this sort of thing in most cemeteries, but it was obvious that something of a project had recently occurred at Riverview. The cemetery has recently been taken over by a Friends group, with actual transfer of legal ownership to the group. Therefore, it is no longer abandoned. The volunteers appear to be digging out many of the old toppled stones and making them visible - quite a Christmas present to the descendants of people buried here. And there are many buried here – about 36,000 interments on Riverview’s 87 acres (according to Riverview's website). The soil may have protected the stones to some degree, as most inscriptions are readable.

If I had not given my cemetery sleigh a new water pump that day, I would not have had the time to make such a studied visit to Riverview Cemetery. While I wasn’t thrilled to drop $450, I’m glad to have spent so much time here, to appreciate the small details I could have easily missed. The visit subsequently gave me a reason to do some related web searching. It was so heartening to discover the existence of the Friends group, an on-line presence for the cemetery, and contact information – all evidence that people care a great deal about their history. Merry Christmas − I’ll leave you with this notation from the Riverview Cemetery website (


Riverview's early interment books list cause of death and some terms such as Apoplexy, Dropsy, Bright's Disease, and La Grippe were not familiar to us. So we have defined a few terms: Apoplexy was used to describe any sudden death that began with a sudden loss of consciousness; heart attack and ruptured cerebral or aortic aneurysms fall under this category. Dropsy or edema refer to the same condition; an increase in interstitial fluid in any organ resulting in swelling. Bright's disease is a historical classification of kidney diseases first described in 1827. La Grippe was one of several names used to describe the influenza that caused a flu pandemic in 1918."

References and Further Reading:
Riverview Cemetery website