The Forgotten Dead
April 28, 2015 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Pennsylvania's oldest and largest is 400 acres. The oldest in New Jersey is now "trapped in the 19th century." NYC turned many into parks. What happens when a cemetery goes under?

Further Reading
The Chicora Foundation helps preserve abandoned cemeteries in the Southeastern United States. They have a FAQ.

Atlas Obscura: America's Abandoned Insane Asylum Cemeteries

Curbed: Mapping 13 Of New York City's Hidden Historic Cemeteries

Forgotten NY: Forgotten Cemeteries
posted by zarq (27 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Atlas Obscura and Slate have more on Pennsylvania's Mount Moriah Cemetery.
posted by zarq at 9:14 AM on April 28, 2015


As I understand it, the usual procedure is to build a suburb on it. Bonus points if one of the developers and family moves in.
posted by happyroach at 9:25 AM on April 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Jersey City Harsimus Cemetery is beautiful. Last year they had goats roam the grounds and clear the brush. Every Halloween there's a party, with local bands playing, and other fundraisers throughout the year.
posted by monospace at 9:38 AM on April 28, 2015


Atlas Obscura and Slate have more on Pennsylvania's Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Both of these are very slightly out of date -- it's been placed under new management within the last few months.

Judge appoints receivership for neglected cemetery (2014/9/21)
A Philadelphia Orphans' Court judge has appointed a receivership to rehabilitate the neglected 200-acre Mount Moriah Cemetery, which straddles Cobbs Creek in Southwest Philadelphia and Yeadon, Delaware County, according to an order posted Friday.

After a hearing Wednesday, Judge John W. Herron dissolved the 159-year-old Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, whose last officer died in 2004. The association's last employee abandoned the cemetery - where 5,000 veterans, including 23 recipients of the Medal of Honor, are buried - in 2011.

Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corp. is the a nonprofit organization, with a seven-member board, that will assume responsibility and report to the court twice a year on its progress in restoring the grounds.

"While it's only been abandoned for a few years, it's been decades that it's been mistreated," said Brian Abernathy, president of the new organization, which will not own the cemetery but will manage it for the court.
Mount Moriah Now Under New Management (2014/9/14)
Mount Moriah, Pennsylvania’s largest cemetery, and one of Philadelphia’s more tragic examples of neglect, is now under new management. The Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation has taken over authority of the historic, 380-acre graveyard. An Orphans Court hearing on Thursday transferred management to the non-profit after dissolving the 159-year-old Mount Moriah Cemetery Association.
Also, here's a another gallery of how Mt. Moriah looked in 2013 (with some added historic background on the site).
posted by cjelli at 9:46 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a family cemetery on my mother's side, on the property of a church that no longer holds services and probably isn't long for this world (or at least this world's tax rolls). There won't be any more family on my mother's side around the area to keep it properly maintained.

My wife and I were lucky enough to take my late grandmother there on one of her good days, where she told us the stories of each grave. But one day those stories, too, will vanish. No one will remember the Confederate veterans. The sickly children who passed before they were named. The laughing teenager who got kicked in the head by a horse. The elderly father of twelve who was likely dead before his legs gave way beneath him. The quiet boy who scaled the new electricity pylon as the hot summer sun burned away what was left of his sanity, and who returned fifty years later from the asylum to be buried by his mother, who had never allowed his name to be spoken in her presence again.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:53 AM on April 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


" In other cases, the current owner of the cemetery which is no longer economically viable may seek permission from their local municipality to sell or repurpose the land for commercial or home use."

You sonofabitch. You moved the headstones, but you didn't move the bodies
posted by k5.user at 9:54 AM on April 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Both of these are very slightly out of date -- it's been placed under new management within the last few months.

!!! That's awesome news. Thanks for the update!
posted by zarq at 10:20 AM on April 28, 2015


this makes me even more suspicious of the chunk of marble they found in our backyard when putting in our fence. I was convinced it was a footstone... now I'm more convinced.
posted by ghostiger at 10:22 AM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is what I see when I go to my local Chipotle. Around here they fence off the tiny cemeteries and build around them. There is a multi-family one (but still, only five headstones) behind my kids' school.
posted by candyland at 10:54 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's a thing in my yard that could be part of an old damaged headstone. Nobody knows wtf it is. There is nothing on file with the county or state about when this house was first built (late 1800s.) The official first cemetery in town was a couple blocks from here. However, I've got two churches within spitting distance so it really wouldn't surprise me if someone was buried in my backyard.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know of a 'development' of big houses in Southeastern Ohio that were quite definitely built on top of a couple a dozen graves. The headstones -- which were still present though (apparently) unattended there in the late 1960s -- gave dates of death in the late 19th through early 20th centuries. I was quite suprised to drive by years later and see these houses there and the graves, the wreck of the cemetery toolshed, and the still-working-in-1970 well pump all gone. I'd like to think that the remains were moved and reburied, but I have no way of knowing.

At the very least, the first two houses in line from the main road have foundations that displaced graves that had been dug within human memory at the time of construction (the 1970s through 1990s). I sometimes speculate whether their basements and in-the-ground swimming pools might be haunted. At the very least, they deserve to be visited by a pooltergeist.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:30 AM on April 28, 2015


Permanent (i.e., those where the plots are not intended to be recycled every couple or three decades) cemeteries just seem like such a colossally bad idea.

What is the point of trying to maintain a piece of land as a holding spot for a dead body long beyond the time when anyone who knew the deceased is even still around to remember them?

Move the remains (as respectfully as is reasonable please), and turn the lands into parks (or housing, or manufacturing, if that's what makes the most sense according to the municipal planners with the expertise and knowledge of the needs of the individual communities in which they lie).
posted by sparklemotion at 11:44 AM on April 28, 2015


Herodios: " I'd like to think that the remains were moved and reburied, but I have no way of knowing."

They definitely should have been -- this is a big part of my husband's job, developers getting permission from the state to have more-than-100-year-old abandoned gravesites moved. You're required to have a state-employed archaeologist attend the moving of the bodies, at your expense. You have to notify the state within 48 hours of finding an abandoned cemetery if you're trying to build there, and stop work at that location until the state inspects it. If you fail to comply with the law, the first offense is a misdemeanor; the second is a felony. Ignoring gravesite statutes can put developers out of business really quickly. Typically the remains then become custody of the state, who have various methods of storing or reinterring the remains, depending on how old they are, whether there are living descendents, whether they're of archaeological interest, etc. (If there are living descendents they're generally notified and given options.) There are contractors with specific expertise in "we have to move a graveyard to build our McMansion" that you can hire who know how to do all the paperwork and stuff with the state.

My observational experience is that developers are pretty alert to the issue (although not happy to stop work when a surprise cemetery that wasn't on any maps they researched turns up ... but they still stop); it's private cemetery owners who are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy who are likely to do shady things with remains that turn into high-profile "won't somebody think of the bodies!" scandals.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:48 AM on April 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, in NEO, here is the grave of Jacob Russell, father of Ralph Russell who founded the North Union Shakers, for whom Shaker Heights was named.

J. B. Russell was born in 1746, founght in the American Revolution, and died in 1821. I walk past his lonely gravesite at least once a week.

All the other graves that had occupied the Shakers' cemetery were moved in 1909 to make way for the development of what became Shaker Heights. Remains were exhumed and interred in a mass grave at a nearby cemetery. Records kept by the Shaker indicate that 137 people had been buried there, but only 89 sets of remains were identified.
 
posted by Herodios at 11:58 AM on April 28, 2015


What is the point of trying to maintain a piece of land as a holding spot for a dead body long beyond the time when anyone who knew the deceased is even still around to remember them?

Because it's the closest that any number of people will have to immortality. Whether people ignore your tombstone on the way to looking at bigger, prettier or fancier monuments; whether anyone bothers to keep your grave clean; whether future graverobbers use it as a way of knowing where to dig; whether future people (or the descendants of the cockroaches that will inherit the earth) have a use for your body as inscrutable to us as the makers of Mummy Brown had for the ancient Egyptians; hey--at least it's something.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:00 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


For another look at what happens to abandoned cemeteries (also in Philadelphia, even), see Monument Cemetery, whose gravestones are currently serving as fill for the Betsy Ross Bridge. I know around the corner from my house there is a playground that is identified on the 1910 map I have on my wall as a cemetery; apparently at some point in the 40s or 50s the city decided it needed more park space so the whole lot was disinterred and moved to a mass grave elsewhere.
posted by zempf at 12:07 PM on April 28, 2015


This isn't some sort of cross-promotion for this summer's reboot of Poltergeist, is it?
posted by fairmettle at 12:11 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is interesting to me because my grandfather is the owner (caretaker?) of the McCatburglar Family Cemetery*, which services a small town in an extremely rural part of eastern Kentucky. My grandfather is in his nineties, and although he still gets out three or four times a week and mows the grass and generally keeps it looking nice, there has been a lot of discussion about what will happen to it when grandpa dies. My dad and my uncle both live 9+ hours away, in opposite directions, and don't want it anyway.

It's not abandoned by any means- people from the community are still buried there on a regular basis, including my grandmother and one of my aunts. The last I heard, I think, there was some legal framework in place so that the responsibility for it would fall to the families of the people with graves there, or people who have bought plots but are still alive? I'm not exactly sure, but it's a thorn in the family's side.

Cremation for me, that's for sure.

*not real name
posted by lollymccatburglar at 12:47 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Permanent (i.e., those where the plots are not intended to be recycled every couple or three decades) cemeteries just seem like such a colossally bad idea.

What is the point of trying to maintain a piece of land as a holding spot for a dead body long beyond the time when anyone who knew the deceased is even still around to remember them?


Because 20-30 years is not enough for generations of descendants to forget them and stop visiting. Heck, most kids will easily outlive their parents by that many years these days.

My great grandparents are buried in a plot in Queens, NY and I visit their graves once a year. My great grandfather died in 1964. My great grandmother in 1995. I knew her. My great, great grandparents and their parents are buried in a plot in Boston, and we have family who visit them at least once or twice a year. They died many decades ago.
posted by zarq at 1:01 PM on April 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


. . . whether future graverobbers use it as a way of knowing where to dig . . .

It's a condition of my will that I am to be buried in an unmarked grave next to the one marked "Arch Stanton".
 
posted by Herodios at 1:02 PM on April 28, 2015


Previously on Metafilter: London's Outcast Dead.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:20 PM on April 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


In some places it's pretty common to use temporary burial sites. In Cuenca, Ecuador there was until recently only one cemetery (they just opened a second). It is owned and operated by the city. When your loved one dies you can get a plot or if you have a family mausoleum or such you can put them there. Each year the cemetery will send the family a bill for their plot or mausoleum or ossuary plot. You pay the bill or your loved ones get evicted.

Typically people get a coffin-sized grave or wall space for a year or two after death and then have the remains (now decomposed and just bone) moved to either a much smaller wall niche (the kind used for cremation remains) or to an ossuary, or take them home.

When I was a kid my grandmother went to another city to bring back her mother's remains, I remember. This would have been decades after her mother died, but they decided not to keep the spot in the other city's cemetery anymore. They literally road tripped to the other city and came back with a little box. Nobody but me thought this was strange.

A relative by marriage went to go watch her sister (dead at least 10 years, I think) moved to another spot. I know this involved seeing the actual remains.

Walking through the cemetery with relatives and asking about person X or person Y (remember, just one cemetery for the city, so if they're dead, that's where they are) it was pretty common for my relatives to argue/debate/try to remember "I think he's still over here, but I'm not sure..." or "No, she's in the other section. The moved her two years ago" Again, nobody but me thinks this is strange.

I think if you just stop paying the bill and don't arrange to pick-up or relocate the remains then they're put in the mass ossuary, but I'm not sure about that.

Many of the mausoleums belong to organizations, not just families. All the religious orders have their own mausoleum and some unions and clubs do, too. My grandfather when he was live would always remind people that he was entitled to be buried in the mausoleum for the truck drivers union because he had been a mail driver for a few years. I think the organizations pay the yearly rent on those so the families in that case don't have to, but I'm not sure if they also have time-limited use of the mausoleum or if members can stay in perpetuity?

My family has a plot in the ossuary, which I think is a lower yearly bill than a full-body plot, though it's the same size, so I'm not sure why. Anyway, the last several family members to die have been cremated and put in the family ossuary, but before that they used to put them in graves, wait for them to decompose and then put them in the ossuary. In fact, I think my grandmother's mother's remains were eventually moved there.

So yeah, some people get evicted long before they're forgotten or descendentless and some people seem to just sort of plan for that and assume that dead people just move sometimes.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:42 PM on April 28, 2015


"We've got to find a way to get these stiffs off my property."

More seriously, I'm not sure how this works out in the US given that burial plots are usually one of the exceptions to the dreaded rule against perpetuities (as the article mentions).
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2015


Video related.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2015


sparklemotion: "What is the point of trying to maintain a piece of land as a holding spot for a dead body long beyond the time when anyone who knew the deceased is even still around to remember them?

Burial is one of the oldest and most distinctive human practices, dating back at least 100,000 years (and probably also practiced by Neanderthals). I'm not totally sure there's a "why," except that it is obviously incredibly important to humans to respectfully dispose of their dead (not always by burial, but burials are among the easiest to find archaeologically) and to avoid being disrespectful to human remains thereafter. Why? Humans gonna human ... it appears to be a pretty deep need.

Move the remains (as respectfully as is reasonable please), and turn the lands into parks"

In the US, you can definitely do this (and historic cemeteries are often already parks! I mean you have to be respectful but they allow jogging and biking and even picnicking, it's one of the ways cities can keep them viable after they've stopped being paid to bury people in them). It's just that you have to fill out paperwork and get permission and go through a process.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 PM on April 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


San Diego has had kind of a quiet pact to pave over cemeteries with as little fanfare as possible for a couple of centuries now (clear highlight of the article: the mass grave for the headstones that had been unceremoniously tossed into a ravine in 1968. Don't ask where the bodies went. Or didn't go, as it were.).

The famous one, the one that many tourists see, is El Campo Santo in Old Town San Diego. You walk over to the cemetery and then you walk carefully across the road while looking at the plaques telling you about the bodies buried underneath the road.

Quite a contrast to the fabulous New Jersey one restored by volunteers (admittedly, the New Jersey one had great stuff--that staircase!).
posted by librarylis at 9:58 PM on April 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I know around the corner from my house there is a playground that is identified on the 1910 map I have on my wall as a cemetery; apparently at some point in the 40s or 50s the city decided it needed more park space so the whole lot was disinterred and moved to a mass grave elsewhere.

Related: a lot of parks in Philadelphia are were used as mass graves. Washington Square is probably the best-known example.
posted by desuetude at 10:11 AM on April 29, 2015


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