Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding Lost Graves

Not being a professional cemetery worker, I don’t often find myself helping people find the grave sites of their loved ones. In my present role on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery (in West Philadelphia), I occasionally find myself performing this service. It’s quite rewarding in a place like this, when descendants may not have visited a grave for thirty years.

The reason for people avoiding Mount Moriah for the past few decades is usually that it was not safe to be here. The weeds had overgrown the place and even in the 1960s, half of the cemetery’s 300+ acres had grown into a forest. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, it apparently got worse. Visitors stayed away in droves.

Cleanup Day
But now they return regularly during the cleanup days sponsored by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery. Other large organizations get involved too, Asplundh, Comcast, the City of Philadelphia, for example. Colleges send students to clean for the day as part of their Civic Engagement courses in community involvement. Drexel, LasSalle, Cheney and other local universities have sent busloads of volunteers to the cemetery. Descendants return to help clear their ancestor’ graves, as well as the graves of others lost to time and thicket.

The people who show up to clean and look for ancestors’ graves are usually in their forties and beyond. They may have spent their childhood living near Mount Moriah, learning how to ride a bike or ski down its gentle hills. The members of the Friends Board go out of their way to help them find the graves of their familial ancestors. The Friends group has access to cemetery records and maps – the latter are on the Friends’ website, the former still not yet available to the public (contact us at info@fommc.org).
Yeadon side of Mount Moriah during "Comcast Cares" Cleanup Day

People want to see the gravesite of their forebears – it gives people a sense of their place in a larger history. We all need a tangible anchor to the past. I’ve helped folks look for graves a few times myself - it can be a truly rewarding experience, or terribly frustrating when you can’t actually find the grave. Why would you not be able to find it with a section map and plot coordinates? As of this writing, although many of the sections in Mount Moriah Cemetery have been cut back and are being kept clear by volunteers and family members, about two thirds of the grounds are still overgrown with trees and high weeds.

Map: Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery website
Having a map is one thing, but trying to claw your way through a thicket rife with fallen headstones entangled by “mile-a-minute” weeds seldom yields a satisfactory outcome. Usually a visitor has done some preparatory research and contacted the Friends group to request information as to the whereabouts of a certain plot. If they want help finding the plot, they may request this of the Friends group or wait for a cleanup day when scores of people are around.

One time an experienced cemetery worker and I spent about an hour trying to find a woman’s grandparents’ graves, but gave up for two reasons: 1) it was summer and the foliage was dense; and 2) though we found the proper area in the proper section, most of the headstones had been pushed over and were lying face down. (You would think vandals would have the common decency to push them the other way so people could still read the inscriptions.)

Northern border of Naval Asylum Plot (graves in woods beyond)
With plot number in hand and even grave row and number, you would think it would be easy enough to find a grave. That’s typically the case in a well-maintained cemetery. However, Mount Moriah has not been maintained. Sometimes you can find a grave if it is one of the historically well-maintained (by the Veterans’ Organization) military plots e.g. the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot or the Naval Asylum Plot. Civilian graves prior to about 1913 are in the older areas of the cemetery and are more likely to be grown over with wild rose bushes, poison ivy, or any number of invasive, spreading plant such as knotweed. These include massive monuments and dynasty plots. This year in particular, the Friends group has organized some highly effective cleanup days and these areas are slowly but surely coming under control.

A few weeks ago during a cleanup day, a woman asked me if I could help her find her husband’s great uncle and great-grandfather’s graves. Looking at the section and plot information, I was afraid it would be a jungle. Someone must have warned her about the florid overgrowth at Mount Moriah, as she was dressed appropriately and had even brought her own machete!

We found the general area of the plot in Section 148 (which, according to the map (at right), contained around 204 graves – 17 columns by 12 rows), but finding the actual grave was quite another matter. The obvious obstacle was the dense forest which had grown up in Section 148. In addition, because the paths or roadways indicated on the map surrounding each section are not obvious in the middle of the woods, finding a starting point can be challenging. Section markers have long disappeared (but this is on the Friends’ to-do list). The only bearing I could get was that Section 148 was just north of the nicely manicured Naval Asylum Plot and just east of the G.A.R. plot which had just been identified and cleared that day in Section 142!

G.A.R. Plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery
The search took about forty minutes in an area roughly half the size of a baseball diamond. The woman had driven here from somewhere in New Jersey and was on a quest for her husband, who was unable to make the trip. As she slashed through the vines and ivy, I climbed from plot to plot checking names. There did not appear to be any damaged or fallen headstones in this section, so that was a good thing.

Visitor nearing ancestor's grave in Section 148
After restarting from what I thought was the southwestern section corner a third time, I found the stone in question. Linda was about fifty feet away talking with another member of the Friends group. I couldn’t actually see them, so I made my way out of the thicket and joined them. I told Linda I had found it. She brightened up and followed me into the woods. The plot in question was so thick, you had to be almost right on top of the stone to see it. It wasn’t a large stone, standard-sized about two feet high by two feet wide. As she approached the stone, I held away some vines so she could see the name. On reading the inscription, she said “This is a truly momentous occasion.

Now, I have to admit that other members of the Friends group and even certain volunteers know the lay of the land far better than I. One or more of them may have been able to find the grave more quickly than I did, so I do appreciate Linda's patience. It’s a learning experience, with improvements all the time. Sam Ricks from the Friends joined us momentarily and accessed the GPS app on his cell phone. Anticipating her next question, which was, “How will I find this when I bring my husband back to clear the grave site?” Sam gave her the GPS coordinates.

Masonic symbolism
As Gwen looked down on the stone, she said, “My husband told me there was some sort of strange carving on it.” I examined it and told her he was a Mason. She called her husband and took photos with her iPhone. She told me that her husband’s great uncle (who died in 1913) used to tell all his nephews and children that they each needed to go to school to at least learn a trade.

Linda relayed the information to me from her husband that said this was a family plot and there should be other graves nearby. Without too much difficulty, I pulled back some vines from a larger stone about six feet away to reveal the headstone of her husband’s great-grandfather. Here's a photo of Linda chopping through the vines with her machete to access his headstone. She vowed to return with her husband to not only clear the area, but to keep it clear. The whole idea of "perpetual care" went out the window when Mount Moriah Cemetery was abandoned in 2011, but the fact is, the majority of the cemetery was left to run wild for decades prior to that.

What's past is past, though, and currently the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery is making great strides to bring the grounds under control. Hopefully within a year the cemetery will have an official legal owner and more concerted efforts will be made to make it a viable cemetery one again. Until such time, if you are looking for a grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, please contact the Friends group at info@fommc.org. Provide us with as much information as you can, and we’ll help you to the extent of the resources available to us.