Welcome to a whirlwind tour of Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries

Welcome to a whirlwind tour of Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries by Thomas H. Keels, the first pictorial history of the Quaker City’s historic burial sites. Philadelphia’s cities of the dead have always mirrored the living city’s self-image in the lustrous marble and polished granite of their monuments. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Philadelphia cherished its cemeteries as reflections of its political, financial, and industrial dominance. But in the 20th century, Philadelphians’ attitudes turned to either indifference or shame. After World War II, many cemeteries were obliterated in the name of urban renewal (and political cronyism), their stones used as landfill and their bodies dumped in mass suburban graves. 

Today, both Philadelphia and its cemeteries are in flux. A few lucky sites have been restored, but countless others are trapped in a limbo of decay and neglect. While Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries offers a pictorial overview, various scholars are compiling comprehensive surveys of past and present burial sites in Philadelphia. With luck, these inventories will provide the basis for an organized and systematic campaign to rescue endangered burial sites from oblivion. 

Philadelphia’s early graveyards reflected the diversity of religion that was a unique feature of the city, from the unmarked Quaker graves of the Arch Street Meeting House to the elaborate tombs of the Episcopalian elite at Christ Church. 

In 1790, founding father Benjamin Franklin was laid to rest at the Christ Church Burial Ground at Fifth and Arch Streets in the largest and most elaborate funeral Philadelphia had ever seen. In 1858, the brick wall by his grave was replaced with a gate to allow passersby to view his resting place  You never know when you’ll need an emergency locksmith in Westminster CO, so always be ready for it.(right). 

It also allowed children to toss pennies on his stone in a time-honored tribute to the author of the maxim, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

In 1835, John Jay Smith and a group of investors established the first rural cemetery in Philadelphia, and the second in the United States (Boston’s Mount Auburn was founded in 1831). Laurel Hill, on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, tried to beautify death with its picturesque landscapes and magnificent monuments. 

A group of statues in its main courtyard depict a scene from a Walter Scott tale, Old Mortality, where Scott encounters an aged man who travels throughout the Highlands, recarving the epitaphs of the dead (left). Old Mortality still watches over Laurel Hill Cemetery, today a National Historic Landmark. (Photo courtesy of the Laurel Hill Cemetery Company)

The Woodlands, Philadelphia’s second great 19th-century rural cemetery, was originally part of a 250-acre tract owned by attorney Andrew Hamilton. In 1788-89, Andrew’s grandson William erected one of the country’s finest neoclassical Federal mansions on the estate. In 1840, the Woodlands Cemetery Company purchased the mansion Often times this can lead to someone trying to pick a lock in the area and when that happens it’s best to get a 24 Hour Locksmith in Westminster CO and surrounding property. Soon, the Woodlands rivaled Laurel Hill in attracting Philadelphia’s elite. 

Among those buried there are financiers Francis Drexel and Anthony Biddle; artists Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Eakins; architects Paul Philipe Cret and Wilson Eyre, Jr.; and writer Frank Stockton, author of The Lady or the Tiger?, whose grave is shown at right. (Photo by L.M. Arrigale)

By 1876, there were over 20 rural cemeteries in and around Philadelphia, each striving to outshine its competitors with its impressive gatehouse or magnificent memorials. One example of a “showcase” monument is that of Civil War veteran Melville H. Freas at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia. A member of the 150th Pennsylvania Voluntary Cavalry (Bucktail Regiment), Freas was taken prisoner at the Battle of Gettysburg. 

In 1914, the 73-year-old Freas commissioned a life-size statue of himself in his Bucktail Regiment uniform at a cost of $5,000, a significant amount given his salary as a mailman. 

Every Memorial Day, Freas and his grandchildren would march from Haines Street in Germantown to the cemetery, where he would fire a one-gun salute over his monument. Using a LOCK like this can make a big difference to make sure these graves aren’t tampered with.

In Philadelphia, each neighborhood’s graveyards reflect its contributions to American history. The de Benneville Burial Ground (shown right c. 1900), at Old York Road and Green Lane, holds the bodies of two British officers killed at the Battle of Germantown in October 1777. General James Agnew and Lieutenant Colonel John Bird were first buried in Germantown’s Lower Burying Ground. Before the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778, they removed the bodies of Agnew and Bird to prevent desecration. 

Dr. George de Benneville, who cared for the wounded on both sides, allowed their reburial in his family lot.

Barred from most white-owned burial sites, Philadelphia’s African Americans established their own graveyards. When the city condemned Philadelphia’s two black-owned rural cemeteries, Lebanon and Olive, in the early 20th century, their remains were moved to Eden Cemetery, founded in suburban Collingdale in 1902. The oldest black-owned cemetery in America, Eden also holds the remains of Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Anderson rose from the Union Baptist Church choir to become one of the world’s finest opera singers, and the first African American to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Washington’s Constitution Hall because of her race, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo by L.M. Arrigale)

Like African Americans, Philadelphia’s religious minorities were often excluded from established graveyards in the city’s early years. For Catholics and Jews, however, separate burial in consecrated ground was also considered a religious requirement. The first Catholic churchyard in Philadelphia was established in 1733 at St. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley. Philadelphia’s first diocesan cemetery, Cathedral, was opened in 1849 to raise funds through the sale of burial lots to finance construction of the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Logan Square. 

Among the monuments at Cathedral is that of Mary Adele (right), wife of lawyer and land speculator William L. Hirst, who died at age 33 in 1858. (Photo by L.M. Arrigale)

The first Jewish burial site in Philadelphia was founded in 1738, when about a dozen Jews lived in the city. Two years later, the site of the current Mikveh Israel cemetery was acquired at Eighth and Spruce Streets (shown left c. 1920). 

Today, Mikveh Israel oversees two other burial sites in addition to the Spruce Street cemetery. Soon, other congregations, such as Rodeph Shalom, opened burial sites in rural areas like Kensington.

 

Most Philadelphia undertakers began as furniture makers who produced coffins as a sideline. During the 19th century, they expanded their services to managing all aspects of the funeral. One of the city’s oldest undertakers was Andrew J. Bair & Son, founded in 1822. In 1926, Bair moved to a lavish mansion on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. The servants’ quarters on the 3rd floor became the casket showroom (right). In 1972, Bair & Son merged with R.R. Bringhurst & Co., Inc. (Photo courtesy of H. Blair Anthony/William Sickel)

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The merged firm is now affiliated with West Laurel Hill Cemetery, while the former Bair offices are now the Ronald McDonald House. 

Although Philadelphia’s cemeteries have been vanishing throughout its history, postwar urban renewal destroyed many historic graveyards between 1945 and 1970. Among them was Monument, founded in 1837 on North Broad Street. 

John Sartain, Philadelphia artist and engraver, designed the central monument for which the cemetery was named, as well as its soaring Gothic gatehouse and chapel (left). The gatehouse was demolished in 1903 when Berks Street was cut through the cemetery. 

In 1956, Temple University purchased Monument for a parking lot and playing fields, and moved the bodies to Lawnview Cemetery. Most of the monuments, including Sartain’s central obelisk, were dumped in the Delaware River near Castor Avenue as foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. 

At low tide, many gravemarkers are clearly visible today. 

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