Saturday, December 10, 2022

Cold Spring Church Graveyard, Cape May

During a wedding my wife and I attended in Cape May, New Jersey in June, 2022, I made a side trip to a local cemetery and a graveyard. Well, not DURING the wedding, the day after. One was St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and the other was the graveyard of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church. Why the distinction, cemetery versus graveyard? Graveyards are technically the burial place surrounding a church, while a cemetery is not. Technically.

I had received a heads up about Cold Spring Presbyterian, that it was an interesting old Victorian church and graveyard. I had no idea how absolutely fascinating it was! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Saturday morning, I got up around 7 a.m. and left my wife sleeping at the beachfront motel. The hotel was conveniently situated on Broadway, at the east end of the cape, where the commercial, touristy bustle winds down. Broadway becomes Seashore Road, and heads directly north to both locations I wanted to visit. It was a bit cool outside, so I grabbed a light jacket and headed out to the car. 

When I arrived at St. Mary’s, maybe two miles north, I drove in to a long, narrow cemetery with a center road. The place was maybe two city blocks long, with a separate cemetery to the left towards the end – Mt. Zion Cemetery. Both were rather nondescript, St. Mary’s had a few statues and one mausoleum. I got out of the car to check out the lovely headstone at the beginning of this essay and was surprised at how hot the air had gotten in the fifteen minutes since I left the hotel. Sunny Saturday at the beach, and here I am in a cemetery!

I didn’t spend much time here as it was not terribly interesting, and headed north another two miles. A quick drive made quicker as I listened to Black Sabbath’s song “Snowblind” on the car stereo. Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery is also known as the Old Red Brick Church Cemetery, which is what the sign says - “cemetery,” even though it’s a technically a graveyard. Go figure. But I don’t stand on ceremony. Saturday morning is preferable to Sunday when visiting a church graveyard, by the way. Why, you may ask? No services going on. When I arrived, there was not a car in the lot, not a soul around – well, not a living one anyway. 

Cold Spring Church, North Cape May, New Jersey

But oh were there the gravemarkers! All styles, all eras. And the ornamentation! I’ve not been this fascinated with Victorian ironwork since I visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. Everywhere and in all directions, family plots with all the original Victorian fencing, decorative gates, and other design elements. The graveyard was immense, covering many acres on all sides of the church. Given the established date on the church itself – 1766 – I assume the graveyard is as old. There were modern graves on the south side of the property, with the oldest nearest to the church. 

Victorian-era ironwork

There was a fascinating bronze art deco style family plot with just one headstone. The green patina of the posts and other decorative elements were breathtaking. The date of the stone – 1922 – coincides with the art deco era. Decorative. Personalized gates were plentiful – on some plots, the fencing was gone, leaving only the gates. Such metal work is usually absent from cemeteries for a variety of reasons. Scrap metal was of great value during WWII, so much of the cast iron was scrapped to build more weapons.

Also, the decorative ironwork prevalent in Victorian cemeteries fell into disfavor among the fashionistas of the 1920s – it was viewed as being too gaudy, elaborate, and dated. In essence, an embarrassment to the family owners, descendants! GOMI, or trash, as the Japanese would have called it. People forget that the avant garde of the 1920s was Art Deco. Families would remove and discard such beautiful Victorian Gothic ironwork as this harp-shaped gate, along with all the associated fencing surrounding a dynasty plot. 

Whatever ironwork remained in U.S. cemeteries after the 1920s was probably removed in the 1940s to help with the war effort. World War II ushered in a massive recycling era for scrap metal, as this was needed to build battleships. Americans were instructed to collect even the smallest hoard of scrap material so as to help the war effort. If you check the photos in this article, you can easily surmise how cemetery fencing may have disappeared ( 

Yet so much of it remains here around the graves of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church. I wish I knew why. Winters here in North Cape May (right on the Delaware Bay) are brutal, but the surrounding trees must protect the stones from the elements. The massive brick church is in fine shape. Many of the thousands of gravemarkers here are also in fine condition, marking the many more thousands buried here beneath the sand. 

Certainly makes one ponder the whole idea of solipsism. None of my surroundings here are open to doubt, as far as I can tell. Such a scene that is all so different to me and unexpected just cannot be a figment of my imagination. My imagination is not that creative. Around 9:30 a.m., my cell phone rang. It was not Rene Descartes, it was wife. “Where are you?” she asked. I responded, “Where else would I be?” Knowing the answer, she asked if I could bring coffee back for her.

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