Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fourth of July at Christ Church Burial Ground

Benjamin Franklin's grave, Christ Church Burial Ground
For the Fourth of July, I thought it might be appropriate to “Welcome America” to Christ Church Burial Ground, in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. If you’re here to visit, you almost cannot help stumbling upon this old (and I mean OLD, established 1719), brick-walled cemetery across from the U.S. Mint (Fifth and Arch Streets). It’s but a stone’s throw from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Ironwork sign over main gate

It is one of the nation’s few surviving Colonial and Revolutionary War-era burial grounds, and right in the midst of the tourist district. While I’m sure this cemetery has many a first-class tale to tell, I’m approaching it from the tourist’s perspective. This is where Ben Franklin’s grave is, and on it visitors toss pennies (“A penny saved is a penny earned”). But there’s a lot more to Christ Church Burial Ground than that. For one thing, you have to pay to get in! Three dollars! If you arrive at the right times, however, you may hit one of the guided tours.

One of the odd and quirky things about Franklin’s grave is his self-penned epitaph, which is engraved on a bronze plaque near the grave (you can only see it from the inside of the cemetery):

“The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer;
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.”

While Christ Church Burial Ground is the only cemetery I know of that charges an admission fee, don’t hold it against the city (there are certainly worse things you can rant about, such as the Parking Authority). The City of Philadelphia does not own Christ Church Burial Ground – it is owned and operated by Christ Church, which is a few blocks away at Second and Market Streets. The money goes to the upkeep of BOTH cemeteries – the older one surrounding the church (which was established in 1695). The one near the mint was opened in 1719 as an expansion of the churchyard cemetery “on the outskirts of town.” Interesting to note that Philadelphia only stretched from the Delaware River to Sixth Street at that time!

Weathered marble headstones at Christ Church Burial Ground
Christ Church Burial Ground is small (only two acres), but is a charming cemetery. Its ground holds many statesmen and other luminaries such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and several signers of the Declaration of Independence. It is fascinating to watch people from the inside gather outside the fence to peer at Franklin’s grave. While the cemetery is surrounded by a high brick wall, Franklin’s grave can be seen for free (even when the cemetery is closed), thanks to his descendants. Back in 1858, they requested that part of the wall be removed so people could view the grave (this is on Arch Street, near the corner of Fifth).

Bronze plaques help identify badly worn stones

The cemetery is gated and locked outside visiting hours (11:30 am – 3:30 pm). During visiting hours, a stand is set up at the entrance with many books for sale, including a reprint of the book compiled in 1864 by the warden of Christ Church, Edward Lyon Clark, “of all the inscriptions that were still visible on the fading soft marble markers.”

If you’re in the historic area, the burial ground is a solid and tangible piece of our nation’s history, and should be visited. An historian friend of mine once said that if Philadelphia's historical attractions are not within six blocks of the Liberty Bell, tourists will not visit them. Therefore, no one visits Fort Mifflin (near the International Airport) or Betsy Ross' grave (Mount Moriah Cemetery). Christ Church Burial Ground, however, is not only convenient - its the real deal. It isn't fictional history like "Thomas Jefferson's house" or "Betsy Ross' house." The clip-clop of hooves from horse-drawn carriages moving along Fifth Street help to conjure a mental image of how this young nation may have seemed centuries ago. Just close your eyes, stand in the graveyard, and listen.

References and Further Reading:
Welcome America website
The Graves of Christ Church Burial Ground