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.”