Sunday, August 16, 2015

Headstones in the Wall

One of my blog readers emailed me this question recently:

“Have you ever seen or do you have any knowledge of a cemetery that has the tombstones set into a cemetery wall? If so, any idea as to the origins of this particular type of tombstone arrangement?”

I have seen this occasionally, and I wanted to share my observations with the wider audience because it is a curious sight, and not very common.You can see one example above.

Stacked, dislocated grave markers
In older graveyards, after headstones have fallen, people will sometimes collect the stones and set them into the cemetery wall, with mortar. My guess is that over the course of decades of collecting fallen stones and propping them against a wall or stacking them up, the corresponding grave locations have been lost. Therefore, the stones cannot be replaced back onto the correct graves.

As a way of preserving the stones (and the history of those interred), at some point people may take it upon themselves to set the stones into a wall. An example is the photo at top, from Philadelphia’s Old Pine Street Church Cemetery, a Colonial-era burying ground at Fourth and Pine Streets. Burials began at Old Pine in 1764, and the grave markers set into the wall are mostly those of 18th and very early 19th century Philadelphians. They were dislocated from their corresponding graves were reset into the wall during a reconstruction project in the 1960s.

Another technique for preserving the headstones which have been separated from their corresponding graves is to set them standing up in mortar as you see below. These stones were reset in 1999 by a group of volunteers. The grave markers had mostly fallen and the small B’nai Israel Burial Ground in Southwest Philadelphia had been neglected and vandalized. This was a way to clean up and create more of a memorial park effect. Headstones were set in concrete around the perimeter of the property. The graveyard had been established in 1856 by the (now defunct) B’nai Israel Congregation (read more about that in my blog post, “Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries.”)

B'nail Israel Burial Ground, Southwest Philadelphia
A possible answer to the original question of why tombstones may be set into a cemetery wall is that a headstone MAY be set into a wall, for instance a church wall, to indicated a burial at that spot. I suppose a wall could be built with provisions for adding grave markers, but you wouldn’t want to be repeatedly digging down to the foundation to bury people.

Reference and Further Reading:
A detail history of the tombstones in the wall of Old Pine Street Burial Ground is given in this wonderful Hidden City article, entitled,
The Tombstone Wall Of Society Hill