Thursday, March 3, 2022

Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery

On Saturday, March 12, 2022 – at 6 p.m. –  I will be giving a virtual presentation on the 1956 destruction of Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia. Many of you have seen my photographs or read my blogs from 2011 and 2012 (see links at end) concerning this landmark event in the city's history. Some of you have probably attended one of my physical or virtual presentations, which I've been calling, "Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery." With each successive presentation, I update the content based on new research. 

The 2022 edition will follow suit and is being sponsored sponsored by the Philadelpha bookstore, A Novel Idea. I appreciate their help and urge you to visit this lovely boutique bookstore in the Passyunk Avenue neighborhood of South Philly. 

A Novel Idea
1726 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148 
(267) 764-1202

Each time I make this presentation, I advertise the event on social media. I typically get a slew of comments from people who were unaware of the situation. Last week when I posted the event, someone wrote, “How could this happen?” Another person responded quite succinctly:

70 years ago Temple needed parking. A cemetery was in the way.

That is, of course, the gist of it. However, my presentation fleshes out the story, covering the history of Monument Cemetery (established in 1837), its destruction, and the aftermath of its obliteration. 

Above you see the Monument Cemetery gatehouse is it stood on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, in 1852 (Gleason’s Pictorial, Vol. III, No. 9, Aug. 28, 1852).

The comments people make (at both my in-person presentations as well as in Zoom virtuals) often provide me with missing details or ideas for further research. Examples include eye-witness accounts by people who were Temple students at the time the cemetery was razed, which certainly casts doubt upon the care which was supposedly exercised in the removal of the bodies.

When I advertise this presentation on Instagram or Facebook, I might get thirty comments, 95% of which will be in the “OMG-how-could-they-let-this-happen” category (which I expect), but there might be another 5% that will go something like this:

“…the graves were relocated, the headstones were used as backfill - no disrespect ...”

Gravestones along the Delaware
So yes, many of the gravestones were dumped into the Delaware River to help create a strong foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (which was then in the planning stage). Dozens of gravemarkers can still be seen at low tide under the bridge. There are differing points of view on this situation, and I am certainly open to everyone's opinion. We learn more about ourselves when we listen to others. Removal of cemeteries happened on a grand scale across the United States after the Industrial Revolution, as cities grew. Small church graveyards as well as large cemeteries often found themselves occupying land that was valued highly by developers. Probably the most disruptive example of this was in 1912 when San Francisco evicted all existing cemeteries - and those buried in them - from within the city limits. In 1929, it began moving the majority of its cemeteries to the town of Colma, California, just outside San Francisco. About 150,000 bodies were moved and many of the gravestones ended up in San Francisco Bay, where some can still be seen today. All in the name of progress.

Monument Cemetery was no different. It sat squarely in the way of the city’s expansion. Like San Francisco, Philadelphia’s population was growing, housing and factories needed to be built. And Monument Cemetery was not the only Philadelphia cemetery moved in that time period. While Monument held about 28,000 bodes, Lafayette Cemetery held about 47,000. Lafayette occupied the land where the present day Capitolo Playground sits in South Philly, next to the two famous cheese steak emporiums – Pat’s and Geno’s. The city paid a contractor to relocate the bodies, but wasn’t much concerned about their actual, eventual destination. But that's another story…

Vault being excavated from Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia, in 1956

And as you might guess (or maybe you might not), when cemeteries are moved, they never seem to move all the bodies. Which may be one reason Temple never went ahead with its plan to build a massive football field on the site previpously occupied by Monument Cemetery. You may have heard of the 2017 discovery of hundreds of bodies in a construction dig at Third and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, the site of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia's burial ground. The bodies were supposedly relocated to Philadelphia’ Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1860. Well guess what - hundreds of bodies in wooden coffins were excavated from that construction site in 2017. Even when written accounts say that all the bodies were moved, well, all the bodies are never moved. Which is one reason they seldom build anything other than a ball field, playground, or parking lot over an old cemetery.

In conclusion, I try not to be critical. I just present the facts. We would all like to believe that we are, for the most part, good, honest, well-intentioned people. The actions described above were made by our ancestors, not us, right? 

Beware the Ideas of March! 

When I gave this presentation last year to an audience of about 175 attendees (hosted by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia), there was a comment in the Zoom chat – “We should raise money to have a commemorative bronze plaque made and attached to the original cemetery wall on the Temple University campus.” Yes, oddly, the cemetery’s stone border walls were kept in place! They are still there! What a fitting memory to this historic cemetery to have an historic marker or plaque placed on or near that wall.

Please join me at 6 p.m. on March 12! Here is the registration page for the presentation:

Further Reading:
My original three blog posts on the destruction of Monument Cemetery from my Cemetery Traveler blog:

If you want to read about the destruction of Lafayette Cemetery, please follow this link:

Also, my book, The Cemetery Traveler, which includes excerpts from these blogs, is available from Amazon: