Saturday, November 29, 2008

Money for Cemeteries

This past summer, Delaware passed Senate Bill 256, which, among other things, established a Distressed Cemetery Fund that will be used to help restore abandoned cemeteries. It makes me wonder if something similar could happen in Pennsylvania, though considering our funding struggles (in Philadelphia especially), it might be unlikely.

It seems like a great idea though. Even if we could allocate a dollar or two of taxpayer money towards a fund like this, it would be something. They'd just have to figure out how to distribute it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Palmer Cemetery

Palmer Cemetery is a small cemetery located in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. An acquaintance at Laurel Hill had clued me in to its existence, and since I was headed to Port Richmond, a neighboring primarily Polish community, to buy pierogies today, I decided to take a look. (You can read more about the cemetery and its origins here.)

In the cemetery, I found some of the most lovely old headstones (including many that are definitely feeling the effects of time), and then newer ones like the one above, that contain the image of the deceased. I hadn't seen one of these before I went to Mt. Peace two weekends ago, and I have to admit they brought me up a little short. I've seen headstones with small pictures attached, but there's something about this format that to me really memorializes a person. But then I've heard some say they find them gaudy and showy. What do you think?

The rest of the photos from my visit can be found here. I hope to take more cemetery pictures I have a better camera, but I was pleased that these came out as well as they did using my tiny camera phone!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Friends' Final Resting Place

As most of you reading this blog probably already know, Philadelphia is the home of many Quakers, and has been since William Penn sailed across the ocean in the Welcome. Serendipitiously, I came across the graveyard where many of those Quakers are interred, Friends South-Western Burial Ground.

I'd been doing the whirlwind tour I mentioned earlier, and was driving through West Philly searching for Mt. Moriah. I suddenly saw on my left a sea of small white stones, all the same except for the names and dates, parallel to the ground. No ornate masoleums or tall monuments here.

(I would later find out that there were previously two Center City Quaker gravesites, one at 4th at Arch, and another at 16th and Race, where meeting houses are still located, but both were disinterred and moved to the South-Western site in the early 1900s. The South-Western site is located at 236 Powell Lane in Upper Darby, just over the county line from Philadelphia.)

Tom Keels had mentioned in his presentation a few weeks back that Quakers believed in very plain graves, none more elegant than the other. And it certainly makes sense in light of the Quaker philosophy of simplicity and practice of being more concerned with the inward than the outward.

There was something very profound in those humble, flat white rows. It's been said that death is the great equalizer. This graveyard is a poignant reminder of that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mikveh Israel

My wanderings took me to one of the three Mikveh Israel cemeteries this weekend. The one at 8th and Spruce is perhaps the most famous (and preserved), but there are also locations at 11th and Federal and 55th and Market. I visited the one in West Philly.

This picture, to me, captures the odd juxtaposition of a quiet resting place with the bustle of city life. (That's Philly's el in the background.) One has to wonder if those spirits are a little more restless since that rumble's so darn noisy! ;)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Boot Camp

The New England Historic Genealogical Society, considered by some the premiere genealogical organization in the country, has a free online seminar about how to transcribe gravestones.

Definitely worth a listen!

Raw Materials

One interesting factoid I learned this weekend at Laurel Hill--marble used to be the most popular choice for tombstones because its luminescent white color was associated with innocence and purity of the soul.

It seems like these days so many more are made out of granite, maybe because it's more durable?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Whirlwind Tour

I'm trying to familiarize myself with most of the graveyards in the city (quite a task!) so I went on a bit of a tear this weekend to check out various sites. All in all, I got to see six of them: Fernwood, Mikveh Israel (the one in West Philly), Friends Southwest Burial Ground, Mt. Vernon, Mt. Peace, and finally, Laurel Hill.

I'll be writing a bit more in depth about them in the next few days, but for now, I'll just say each was fascinating in their own way. Urban cemeteries are such an interesting juxtaposition--places of quiet and reflection in the middle of the hustle and bustle.

More soon!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Green Burial

Speaking of Laurel Hill, I got an interesting email in my inbox the other day. Today at 4, "West Laurel Hill Cemetery and Bringhurst Funeral Home will be annoucing their offering of green funeral services, and dedicating a section of the cemetery to green burial. (It'll be called "Nature's Sanctuary".) Their goal is to be 100% environmentally friendly, which means no embalmed bodies, only non-treated wood and biodegradeable shrouds, natural markers, and landscaping with indigenous trees, plants, shrubs and grasses."

I've only recently been hearing more about this trend, and I'd like to know more. I'll do some research and report back, but if anyone has strong thoughts about it, please feel free to share!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Laurel Hill Cemetery

Laurel Hill is one of Philadelphia's most prominent cemeteries, and they've done some interesting things to keep themselves afloat. They've got a snappy website, offer tons of themed tours through the grounds, and even signed on with cutting edge ad agency Red Tettemer to create a marketing campaign that had the city buzzing.

They also have some very funky promotional postcards with headstone images that they had on offer at the most recent Federation of Genealogical Societies conference back in September. Being the rabbit I am, I couldn't resist picking up quite a few.

Of course, postcards are meant for mailing. So if you'd like one, feel free to email me your address at, and I'll be happy to drop one in the mail to you!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Restoration Workshop

One local cemetery that seems almost a model for restoration is Mt. Peace, in Lawnside, NJ (just over the bridge). According to their website, while the graveyard was created in 1890, it fell into disrepair in the '50s. In the '80s, the neighborhood took it on as a volunteer project and started to clean it up. New trustees then implemented some helpful changes, including the implementation of cleanup as a probationary project, purchasing tools and equipment, and applying for grants to assist with the preservation of the cemetery.

I haven't been to Mt. Peace yet to see the results of their efforts, but I plan to on November 22nd when they offer a cemetery restoration workshop that will include discussion of African-American burial traditions, cemetery restoration techniques and strategies, and a sprinkling of history, all for the low cost of $5. You can download the workshop flier for more details.

I hope to see some of you there!

Monday, November 3, 2008

A few famous Philadelphians and their resting place

Doing this blog has made me curious about where our local celebrities have been buried throughout the years. I found out today that our infamous mayor, Frank Rizzo, Sr., was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, on the Montgomery/Philadelphia County line.

Connie Mack, of Philadelphia baseball fame, is buried there, too. The exact address is 4001 West Cheltenham Avenue, in case anyone wants to do a little grave hunting!

photo credit: yourfavoritemartian on flickr

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Are you a taphophile? If you have "a strong interest in graves and cemeteries," you are. And really, if you're reading here, I'm guessing you probably do!

Today's trip was to a cemetery in West Philadelphia called "The Woodlands". Formerly the estate of a prominent botanist, the cemetery itself has been in existence since approximately 1840, and several famous people are interred there, including Joseph Campbell, the founder of Campell's Soup, and Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins.

I took some pictures and will post them shortly, but my overall impressions of the cemetery were favorable. It's a beautiful site, with lovely trees and greenspaces, and the graves, for the most part, are well cared for, though some are definitely suffering the effects of wear. There were a few tilted markers, and several crosses that appeared to have been lopped off their moorings, but for the most part, everything was tidy and well-tended.

It would be a formidable project to index the graves in this graveyard, but probably very doable since the hours of the graveyard are regular and it's in an extremely safe neighborhood. I plan to talk to the curator/groundspeople a little to make sure it hasn't already been done, but if not, I say we go for it!