Sunday, December 27, 2015

Pottstown, Pennsylvania Cemeteries

Edgewood Cemetery, Pottstown, Pennsylvania
If you travel from one geographic region to another in America, you’re likely to notice subtle differences in architecture. You’ll see differences not just in bridges and buildings, but in cemetery monuments, mausoleums, and grave markers. Headstones themselves vary by shape, inscription lettering styles, and other aspects of design. When I say this varies by geographic region, this may entail areas only fifty miles apart. Different stone carvers, different quarries, different religious sects are but a few of the variables that contribute to differences in stone memorials. This was certainly the case in three cemeteries I visited recently in Pottstown, Pennsylvania – a rural town about forty miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Edgewood Cemetery, Pottstown, Pennsylvania
The main objective of my trip was to see Edgewood Cemetery (on High Street, see map), a twelve-acre property that had been abandoned and recently adopted by a group of concerned citizens, a Friends group. I arrived in Pottstown a bit early so I decided to try out my new Apple iPhone 6 by using it to find other local cemeteries. There were several. The closest one to me was Saint Aloysius Parish’s “Old” Cemetery on High Street on the east side of town. (The Parish has a “New” cemetery in another section of Pottstown.)

Saint Aloysius is wonderfully quaint and wonderfully old – I would guess it was established around the same year the parish was established – 1856. Marvelous decorative iron gates hang from massive stone entrance pillars, giving the impression of total security. However, even with no fence whatsoever at the residential end of the property, I saw no evidence of vandalism or disarray. This was in fact the case in all three cemeteries I visited.

Gold painted marble headstone, St. Aloysius
Saint Aloysius Cemetery is only a few acres, and you can get an appreciation for the cemetery by simply driving around its well-maintained roads. I did get out of my car a number of times, however, to examine more closely some of the grave stones. It became evident to me that simply forty miles from Philadelphia (where I live), there were marked differences in the styles of headstones here compared to what I am used to seeing in the Greater Philadelphia area. For instance, I think I’ve only ever seen one headstone painted like this gold one.

Marble headstone, St. Aloysius Cemetery, Pottstown, PA

Local artisans left their unique and indelible mark on many shapes and styles of headstones. Also, the vicinity may be less susceptible to acid rain as many examples of white marble sculpture seemed oddly well-preserved. Lettering and other engraved designs were clearly recognizable, something I’m not used to seeing in this part of the country.

Rock of Ages headstone with cut sheaves of wheat (symbolizing death)

After a half hour or so in Saint Aloysius, I drove about ten minutes west on High Street to meet my friend at Edgewood Cemetery. He’s one of the volunteers who helps keep the place maintained and getting groups of volunteers to cut grass, clear trees, etc. Edgewood doesn’t have the quaintness quotient of Saint Aloysius, but it is well-maintained and boasts some rather unique memorial sculpture. I don’t remember ever seeing “Rock of Ages” inscribed on a memorial ANYWHERE. The stone is rather old, so I don’t think it refers to the Def Leppard song of that name. More likely the 1763 Christian hymn that refers to the rock that shelters Christians from the storm.

I was surprised to see, as I walked around, a small headstone with a carved angel atop, about six inches wide. Such detail, along with most lettering, is usually eroded away. Established in 1862, the Edgewood Cemetery was abandoned in the 1930s. Local volunteers keep it tidy, and there seem to be occasional burials. There is some damage, apparently from ground subsidence. Some headstones have eroded off their bases, some have fallen due to groundhogs burrowing beneath them. A few have been uprighted and repaired.

Recent burial, Edgewood Cemetery
In the 2014 article, "Pottstown council ponders the future of Edgewood Cemetery," “Todd Dawson of Todd’s Tree Service, became so upset about the overgrown conditions at the cemetery, that he volunteered over the course of several days to cut the grass.” In addition, “Some citizens, who have asked to remain anonymous for now, have expressed an interest in forming a non-profit organization to take possession and responsibility for the cemetery ….

Whatever its future, Edgewood seems stable for now. Enough people are devoted to keeping it maintained and intact until a more formal arrangement can be made. If the local government can declare it abandoned, progress would have greater potential. Walking through the cemetery is a lesson in stone carving, monument craftsmanship, and history. Maintaining the history of these stones, along with that of the people beneath them, is of great importance to the volunteer group (see the Facebook Group page, “Edgewood Historic Cemetery”).

This amazing white marble arch, which stands about six feet high and spans about ten feet marking the entry to a family plot, is inscribed with the words,In Death They Are Not Divided.” I thought this to be a good motto for the Friends group – in death, the deceased should not be divided from, or forgotten by, the living.

Elks Club, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

My third and final stop in the area was Pottstown Cemetery, after grabbing a coffee at the lovely “Potts and Penn Family Diner” nearby, across High Street from the Elks Club (there are a lot of Victorian structures like this in the vicinity). I got the feeling that the Pottstown Cemetery was a factory cemetery, as there is an old factory next to it. Similar to cemeteries next to coal breakers, one can only assume that many who had toiled in the factory in the late 1800s and early 1900s ended up dead and buried next to it. This angel on a high pedestal next to the factory seemed to bear witness to such difficult lives.

Factory Angel, Pottstown Cemetery
The “old” cemetery (next to the factory) is on a hill directly across N. Hanover Street from the “new” Pottstown Cemetery. The old one has quite a bit more character. The sun was low on the horizon when I got there as it was just around noon and close to the winter solstice. I have a thing for silhouettes and driving up the hill into the cemetery I was presented with this lovely silhouette (below) directly in front of me.

Pottstown Cemetery, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

The simple fact that such fine detail remains on these soft marble grave markers is uncommon in this geographic area – an area of harsh winters and dramatic seasonal climate swings. I was surprised to see, as I walked around, a headstone with this little carved cherub, about four inches in diameter. Such detail, along with most lettering, is usually eroded away.  In the base of the factory angel was the three-dimensional marble scene below, about fourteen inches long and eight inches high. Tree symbolism – the weeping willow, along with a burial crypt with cover removed – the symbol for resurrection, and a heavenly afterlife.

The headstones in these Pottstown cemeteries are much more ornate and interesting than most headstones made in the past hundred years. Check out this marble tree stump memorial from 1892, for instance. I saw several examples of this – with the roots of the stump carved out very plainly. The symbolism is intense – not only has the life been cut short (a severed tree), but the stump itself has been torn away, uprooted, from the mortal earth. Reminds me of the Emily Dickinson quote,“To be remembered is next to being loved, and to be loved is Heaven.”

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Death at Christmas

Here I am writing a blog about death on my own birthday. Polar opposites on one hand, yet part of the same package. It’s also a week before Christmas, December 19 – thanks again for that, Mom and Dad. I always felt gypped having the two days so close, as their typical line would be, “This is for your birthday AND Christmas!” So boo-hoo; anyway, here’s a real hardship – a friend of mine is spending his first Christmas without his wife.

She died this past summer. Unexpected and aggressive cancer killed her at 56. I went to the funeral. When it comes to the list of things that remind us of our own mortality, attending a funeral must be Numero Uno. Having a clear view of the cemetery out your fourth floor hotel window may run a close second.

Not only was having the cemetery right next to the hotel convenient for out-of-town visitors, but the church itself, where the service was held, was just on the other side of the cemetery! Everything within walking distance, including the restaurant for lunch afterward. Good planning on my buddy's part. I didn’t realize how close things were to each other and the morning of the funeral I drove past the cemetery looking for the church. I noticed a sign that said, “Mausoleum Sale! $15,000.

The funeral was solemn (more so than my biker friend’s funeral that I attended a few months later). It was also quite boring, thanks to the Catholic priest in attendance. He had all his lines memorized, no doubt having done this countless times. This was, however, a blessing in disguise. When they get all emotional and start referring to the deceased as if they actually knew them, I get all teary-eyed.
The only personal comments made at the service were made, surprisingly, by my friend, the widower. He shared a couple pages of memories of his late wife, such as, “She loved to plant flowers, but she didn’t love to water them. That always ended up being my job.” Have to give him credit – I could never have uttered a word had I been in his shoes.

Later, back at his house, the doorbell kept ringing with flower deliveries. He was totally weary by that point but got up to answer the door. When he came back to the gathering of friends and relatives, someone asked, “More flowers?” He said, “No. Some guy trying to sell me windows. I said, look buddy – I just buried my wife today. It’s not a good time.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Union Cemetery Has Gone Missing ...

Here’s a short blog on an odd little situation I just discovered. I live in South Philadelphia near Third Street and Washington Avenue. At Sixth Street and Washington Avenue (running to Federal Street), there used to be a cemetery. It was called the Union Cemetery. The City of Philadelphia “removed” the cemetery around 1970 to further develop the commercial business corridor along Washington Avenue.

I have driven past the particular Asian supermarket you see in the photo above, which is at Sixth and Washington (Federal Street is behind it). I have driven past it hundreds of times since moving to the neighborhood in 2008. Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea that the stone wall along Sixth Street (on the south side of Washington) is the ACTUAL stone retaining wall of the Union Cemetery! Complete with holes in the granite top where the iron fence was anchored!

It is no wonder they would they destroy a cemetery to build a parking lot, but why KEEP the original retaining wall? If you’re expecting to find the answer here, you may as well stop reading – I don’t have it. There is quite a bit of information (and photos, as bizarre as that is!) on the cemetery’s demise all over the Internet, but I could not find out much about the wall. I suppose it will remain just one of those odd little cemetery facts.

Union Cemetery wall with fallen fencing, c. 1970 (Ref. 1)

I will quote a few of these sources and you can see more of the historic photos at the link to the Temple University Archives (at end). Temple, by the way, is no stranger to cemetery destruction. They conned the City of Philadelphia into condemning the city’s second Victorian cemetery in 1956 so the university could build a you guessed it – a parking lot. (Read more about that on my blog post, "How Monument Cemetery Was Destroyed," at the link at the end.)

Picking through human bones during excavation of Union Cemetery, c. 1970 (Ref. 2)

Historic map of South Philadelphia's Union Cemetery (Ref. 4)
But back to the little ol’ Union Cemetery, the graveyard in the Southwark section of Philadelphia which occupied land about the size of half a city block. The name "Union," perhaps, may have sprung from the fact that a union, or association, of people established it in 1841. Ironically, 100 Civil War soldiers - mostly Union Army veterans, I suppose - were later buried here. Where are they now? Under the parking lot of the Asian supermarket? Supposedly not. Above you see a photo of a young man picking through the bones in 1970 so they could be reinterred, in a mass grave, I expect, in Frazer, PA – a distant suburb of Philadelphia . Get those dead as far away from the living as possible! Make way for progress!

Original entrance gate from Union Cemetery resides at Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, PA. (Ref. 1)

From the Find A Grave website (Ref. 1):

"The Union Burial Ground was located at the NE corner of 6th and Washington; Federal Streets in South Philly, was incorporated in 1841 as an "association" cemetery, catered to the poorer residence who as association members could obtain a decent family plot for $10.00. This cemetery was called Sixth Street Union to differentiate it from another Union Burial Ground at 10th and Washington Avenue. In 1970 the cemetery which contained the graves of over 100 Civil War Soldiers and Sailors and their families was neglected and vandalized. That same year the site was sold for use as a supermarket. About 2,000 graves were dug up, the remains boxed and then reburied in Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, Chester County."
Casual onlookers during the demise of Union Cemetery, c. 1970 (Ref. 3)

Union Cemetery's decline began at the end of the nineteenth century, as the area's residents began to move away, edged out by commercialization. With no close relatives living nearby to care for the graves, the cemetery went to ruin (Ref. 4). As I said, by 1970, it was gone - gone, that is, except for one of it's retaining walls. Perhaps it was left intentionally as a reminder to future generations - a reminder of the ground's sacred past, or perhaps our callous handling of the dead.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Report from the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation

The following report is addressed to Mount Moriah Cemetery (Philadelphia and Yeadon, Pennsylvania) stakeholders from Brian Abernathy, President of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation (MMCPC) and the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. It is available on the Friends of Mount Moriah, Inc. website (FOMMCI link below). As a Board Member of the FOMMCI, I thought I would make it available on my Cemetery Traveler blog - many of my readers are interested in the status of this massive, previously abandoned cemetery. There are thousands of people across the United States who are stakeholders to some degree in the situation with Mount Moriah, as evidenced by the active participation of 3,743 members on the FOMMCI Group Facebook page (as of this writing). The cemetery has had over 80,000 burials since its establishment in 1855.

Link to FOMMCI Facebook Group Page
Link to FOMMCI Website

The report details the completed work as well as ongoing maintenance and restoration projects at the cemetery since the MMCPC became the legal Receiver of the property in 2014. I’ve added some 2015 photographs (all but one are mine) to the text to show the current state of the cemetery. The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., by the way, has been working to save these hundreds of acres of history, art, and memories since the property was officially abandoned in 2011.

From the FOMMCI website:

Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation
c/o Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority
1234 Market Street, 16th Floor
Philadelphia, PA  19107
(215) 209-8720

As you are probably aware, over the last several years, the cemetery has been greatly improved due to the efforts of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., the volunteer organization that was formed to steward the cemetery after its abandonment in 2011. The Friends have reclaimed many parts of the cemetery from woody, invasive vegetation and much of the cemetery is now being mowed on a regular basis. Through the tireless efforts of the Friends, not only has the physical appearance of the cemetery improved, but the organizational affairs have improved as well. The Friends offer comfort for families and direction for those doing genealogical research. We can’t thank them enough. 

In September 2014, the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation was appointed receiver of Mount Moriah Cemetery. The former owner, the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, whose last member died in 2004, was dissolved by the Orphans Court of Philadelphia and a group of volunteers, the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, was appointed by the court to act as the receiver. The receiver is not the legal owner but works under the auspices of the Court to discharge the business affairs. The court order allowed the Corporation to determine the Cemetery’s assets and liabilities but also required that the Corporation attempt to better secure the site, work with others to better maintain the property and, most importantly, determine a strategic direction for the long-term viability of the Cemetery.

This letter is meant to provide you with an update on the Corporation’s activities as the receiver. 

Current Governance

The current board and officers of the Corporation are:

Brian Abernathy, President (Philadelphia appointee)
Executive Director, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority

Paulette Rhone, Vice-President (citizen appointee)
President, Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery

Nevin Mann, Secretary/Treasurer (citizen appointee)
Deathcare Industry Consultant

Hon. Rohan Hepkins (Yeadon appointee)
Mayor, Borough of Yeadon

Clifford Brock (Yeadon appointee)
Brock Brothers Construction

Martine DeCamp (Philadelphia appointee)
Philadelphia City Planning Commission

Michael Nairn (citizen appointee)
Associate Professor, Urban Studies, University of Pennsylvania 

Finances of Mount Moriah Cemetery Association

As reported in March 2015, the Association’s operating account at Citizen’s Bank has had a zero balance since June 2011.  The Association’s perpetual care fund account has a balance of approximately $12,435. 

As a result of an inquiry by the Corporation, PNC Bank has recently disclosed several Trust accounts held for perpetual care.  These accounts were reported by PNC’s Cleveland office as well as from local law firm Feldman and Feldman.  Because the cemetery is in receivership, the Corporation is in current discussions with legal counsel to determine how to access these accounts and how these accounts must be used.

In our March report, the Corporation reported that it had received notice that the City of Philadelphia intended to sell the cemetery at Sheriff Sale.  According to the City Law Department, a portion of the Cemetery has been assessed property taxes for a number of years and that the former Association had been paying those taxes until 2011.  Since that time, the City has agreed that the property should be listed as exempt and has corrected its records.

Additionally, we have learned that the Cemetery had a significant water and storm water liability.  Those liabilities have been waived by the City.  

Fundraising and Strategic Planning

Efforts to secure support and embark on a strategic planning effort continue.  Specifically, the Corporation and the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery have submitted a Letter of Intent to the William Penn Foundation to fund a strategic plan. The Foundation has invited the Corporation to submit an application and the application was submitted on November 2.  We hope that funding will be secure by December 2015.  Additionally, the Freemasons have expressed an interest in funding a portion of the strategic planning effort.

Conversations have also continued with a number of stakeholders and potential advisers, including Jessica Baumert (The Woodlands Cemetery), Scott Quitel (LandHealth Institute) and PennPraxis. 
Photograph by Robert Reinhardt

Security and maintenance 

The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery have held weekly volunteer restoration events throughout the Spring and Summer.  These volunteer efforts include students from local universities as well as the families of those  who are buried in the cemetery.  Collectively, they have successfully maintained a larger number of sections and areas than had been maintained by the original association.

As previously reported, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority installed cyclone fencing around the perimeter of the Cemetery in October 2014.  It continues to make spot repairs if and when necessary to deter dumping and other illegal activity.

The Borough of Yeadon has repaired a portion of the Cemetery’s roadway to maintain access to the entire Yeadon portion of the Cemetery.

The City and the Borough police departments have agreed to regularly patrol the site.

The Preservation Alliance named the historic gatehouse one of the City’s most endangered structures.  As a result, the Corporation has applied for and been awarded funds to stabilize the structure by the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia.  The Corporation has signed an agreement with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. to prepare engineering reports and plans.  The Corporation hopes to complete stabilization by the end of the calendar year.

Burial and Information Requests

There have been a number of inquiries regarding burial and disinterments.  For each request, the Corporation informs the family or funeral director of the Cemetery’s current legal state, that a petition must be filed with the Court and that the Court must order the burial or disinterment.  The Corporation also expresses concern about the Cemetery’s records and admits to not having a full understanding of where all burials are located.  

The Friends of Mount Moriah continue to field the majority of information requests.  They receive 3-5 requests per week and at least once a week a volunteer is required to visit the plot and clear the grave to gather information.   

Records and other Administrative Issues

The Cemetery’s burial records are currently being held by the City of Philadelphia Department of Records.  The Friends of Mount Moriah has organized volunteers to scan those records and distribute the electronic copy to volunteers nationwide so that a database of plot owners and burials can be created. 

Approximately 90% of burial records have been photographed.  The records consist of the 7 initial Registers, the Day Books, Burial Cards and later the Burial Forms.  These photos are sent out in batches of 25 to volunteer transcribers who send the transcribed information back in an excel spreadsheet.  The information is proofed and then uploaded into the database.

The City of Philadelphia has paid for the Corporation’s General Liability insurance.  Ballard Spahr has updated a waiver and release for volunteers that work at the Cemetery.

In closing, the Corporation feels that it is beginning to make progress.  Admittedly, the Board often feels overwhelmed by the scale of this project and the host of difficulties that it must overcome.  The size of the property, the lack of financial resources, the poor organization of the former Association and its records and the challenges found in the surrounding community all weigh heavily on the Board.  At the same time, each of these obstacles reinforces in the Board the need to persevere. 

On behalf of the Board, we appreciate your support.


Brian Abernathy