City Asleep: History of Garden Cemeteries and Philadelphia’s Abandoned Mount Moriah

An elegant sprawl of manicured land is probably what comes to mind when you think of a cemetery. But this picturesque model is relatively new in the Western world and has been difficult for some cemetery associations to preserve. Such is the case with Mount Moriah in Philadelphia. Before the 1700s overcrowded churchyards housed a majority of a city’s dead as I explored in another post. Thankfully, city planning took over for sectarian gravesites after they became an issue of public concern.  The first landscaped cemetery opened in France in 1804. Greenspaces built in this romantic style are the marbled terraces that taphophiles know and love today.

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1861 engraving detailing plans for a garden cemetery in Rhode Island. Credit.

Sometimes called rural cemeteries because they were strategically placed outside city limits, the first manifestation of American garden cemeteries was established in 1831 at Mount Auburn near Boston. This trend quickly took hold and by the 1850s nearly 30 garden cemeteries were built across New England and the MidWest. From their earliest development garden cemeteries were used as public parks for recreation purposes.

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Mount Auburn Cemetery, oil on canvas by Thomas Chambers. Credit .

Unfortunately, civic interest has dwindled throughout the twentieth century and some cemeteries have fallen into disrepair. The number of cremations also increased meaning that families no longer needed a physical site to visit their dead. Moreover, maintaining a huge ornamental garden was an exceptional cost that some growing municipalities simply couldn’t afford. Mount Moriah fits into the latter category.

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Screenshot of The Woodlands via Google Maps.

Healthy garden cemeteries maintain clean geometric shapes that balance natural elements like the satellite view of Philadelphia’s Woodlands shown above. Mount Moriah on the other hand has become astonishingly overgrown. For visual reference I contrasted the original cemetery plans below with an aerial cutout outlined in red as it exists today. Where there should be rows of neat headstones are now mostly trees.

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Original 1910 map of Mount Moriah with inlay of overgrown rotunda via Google Maps.
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View from the ground of the same rotunda. Photo by Alysen Wade.

Mount Moriah cemetery was complete in 1855 in southwest Philadelphia. It joined other famous garden cemeteries like Laurel Hill and The Woodlands. At one point Mount Moriah outpaced them all, consuming over 200 acres of land making it the largest in the state.

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Headstones in a tangle of trees. Photo by Alysen Wade.

It is unclear when the cemetery began to visibly decline but has suffered from neglect and mismanagement throughout the twentieth century. There are however two military plots located here that are still well-maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Vines overtaking an ornate sarcophagus. Photo by Alysen Wade.

The cemetery has no clear ownership after its last known member of the cemetery association died in 2004. Since then it has been gridlocked in a unique battle because it spans two county lines.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Fortunately for those laid to rest and families who wish to visit the deceased, a nonprofit group called Friends of Mount Moriah organizes regular cleanups and fundraisers to secure the yearly $500,000 operating fee. Even with community support there is much to be done in the way of clearing extensive brush.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Several famous political figures are buried here including past mayors and state representatives. Betsy Ross, craftswoman of the first American flag was interred with her husband until they were both relocated to Christ Church in the mid-1970s.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Mount Moriah cemetery was known in the community for being an affordable option. While other facilities charged upwards of $5,000, Mount Moriah offered similar landscapes for less than half that – an option considerate of its surrounding lower-income residents.

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Mausoleum damaged by vandals. Photo by Alysen Wade.

Business activity officially ceased as of 2011. Even if families currently hold deeds to plots there is no operator who coordinates and consents to burials on the property, which means that no new interments can take place.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

The city of Philadelphia has no oversight of the land and cannot offer funds for its upkeep. There are no shareholders to push for election of new board members. Mount Moriah’s complicated status may be the only predicament of its kind. With no legal precedent it is unclear when and if duly authorized individuals can rectify the cemetery’s insufficient perpetuity fund.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

Lending to Mount Moriah’s importance as a cultural hub is the provision of many unique arrangements. Several Muslim burials have taken place here while other regional sites historically shut them out. Mount Moriah features rare communal burials allowing for up to three family members in the same plot which helped reduce costs.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

To see such a beautiful place in a state of disrepair with no certain future is heartbreaking to say the least. The feeling of woe is further compounded when considering the geographic location. While places like Laurel Hill are situated in more affluent parts of town you have to consider that Mount Moriah’s neglect is part of the larger issue of urban decay plaguing Philadelphia’s lower West side.

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Photo by Alysen Wade.

The Friends of Mount Moriah have been operating since 2011 entirely on public support. As their mission statement notes, the cemetery is an important resource for several racial, religious, and socioeconomic stakeholders. Widespread community involvement to revive the cemetery’s rich history is a cause to celebrate. If you do not live in Philadelphia or are otherwise unable to attend restoration events you can assist by purchasing a t-shirt or donating in kind. With continued engagement from cemetery lovers of all walks of life the history of garden cemeteries like Mount Moriah will continue to thrive.

Death & Feminism: The History of Funerals as Women’s Work

Women have always played an important role in handling the deceased. Yet funeral customs throughout history reflect significant labor shifts. In the mid-1800s women called “shrouders” or “layers-out of the dead” offered their services as primary caretakers of those who passed. Women who were themselves widows or previously bereaved washed, dressed, and posed corpses of friends and extended family for their at-home ceremonies. This included grooming, removal of organs, and applying preservation techniques to stave off rot.*

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The Shrouding Woman, by Loretta Ellsworth tells the story of Evie, whose aunt with a strange profession comes to live with them after her mother’s death. Credit

Since antiquity women’s burial duties have consisted of much more than body preparation. They also presided over ancient funereal rites. Greek and Roman women carried out the iconic Charon’s obol, or placing of a coin over the deceased’s mouth in payment for a last ferry ride.

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Even the display of grief has been historically women’s work. Dating as far back as the seventh century women earned money by mourning loudly at Irish wakes in performances called “keening.”* Folklore of the banshee stems from this tradition of wailing women. The practice still exists in many forms throughout the world. Women in Ireland abandoned the keening marketplace during the 1950s when Catholic priests no longer agreed to share profits from burial fees.

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Vocational options for women in the death industry were initially blighted by economies of war. During the Civil War formaldehyde embalming procedures became the norm because it allowed fallen soldiers to be returned to their families with less decomposition after lengthy train rides home.

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By mid-1800s women were not present among growing ranks of mortuary science graduates and funeral duties were shuttled away from the home almost entirely. Instead they became relegated to parlors where undertaking was established as a formal occupation dominated by men. In 1867 Philadelphia reported 125 professional male undertakers and only four female shrouders. Women’s access further diminished at the hands of trade journalists who routinely published on the topic of women’s ineptitude for embalming careers.

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Like other industries that have pushed women out as soon as it became a lucrative and respected job (see the Medieval beer trade as another example) the world of deathcare is shifting again. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported in 2010 that 57% of mortuary science students in the US were women. That figure was up 60% from 1995. However, these statistics do not always equate to real jobs. Women’s employment continues to rank well below their male counterparts. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that women make up less than 17% of NFDA’s overall membership.

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Women’s rights movements of the 1970s and 80s have been influential in reshaping demographics of the American funeral industry, but there are still battles to be won. Funeral homes remain conservative institutions due to their clientele. Getting hired is especially difficult for women of color, women with visible tattoos, and trans people.

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Fortunately, more women have become funeral directors and owners of their own facilities allowing women’s employability to increase. Green and independent burial practices have also created opportunities for women interested in professions like death doulas and funeral celebrants. Fortune magazine stated in an article over two years ago that an increasing number of mortuaries “will probably be run by a woman.” As inevitable consumers of the death industry, we can help support this reality by choosing women and minority-owned business for our own end of life plans.

[Footnotes]:

*https://deadmaidens.com/2018/01/24/feminist-death-work-a-history/

Year in Review (Part Two): All the Cemeteries!

Welcome back for part two! If you missed the first half of this review you can read it here. It’s been a wonderful process growing into this blog over the last year and I can’t wait to share more. I’m also looking forward to clearing out my photos since 90% of my data is taken up by cemetery shots. Here’s to 2018 and all the cemeteries to explore!

10. Dublin Cemetery (Dublin, OH)

I love secret societies and dedicated my first blog post to one. The Dublin Cemetery was founded by a secretive organization known as the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) so I knew I had to visit. IOOF’s share a connection with Freemasons and date back to the 15th century. They are far less popular but more progressive in that they offered membership to both men and women. Their name comes from the establishment of guilds that represented tradespeople with unusual or odd professions. IOOF membership has significantly dwindled over the past century so the Dublin Cemetery established in 1858 is rather unique.

IMG_4211.JPGBecause the cemetery has been in operation for over a century and is still accepting interments, it is fascinating to trace developments in burial technology. The oldest part of the cemetery contains hand-chiseled epitaphs that were preferred by early settlers. The ground is also more spongy suggesting that concrete vaults were not initially used to reinforce the earth. Today the popular headstone style appears to be intricately cut granite memorials. This technology showed up in the late 1980s and produces a high-resolution image on dark stones. Laser engraved markers are so numerous here they’ve become the norm. For a cemetery built to honor those with odd professions I’m sure it would please IOOF founders to know that laser monument artists are in such high demand.     IMG_4203

9. Ward Cemetery (Allen County, OH)

Just outside of Lima there is a highway cemetery with the most unusual headstone I’ve ever found. Near the cemetery site, Samuel McCluer cleared land to build a log cabin in an area called Hog Creek Settlement in 1825. Born in 1799 in Kentucky he relocated to the area after fighting in the War of 1812. McCluer was regionally influential and had 23 children between two marriages.
IMG_4232 2Samuel’s story is told by those who knew him in that mythical way befitting a rugged settler who tamed the land and became master of his hard-won domain. One of Samuel’s sons recounted: “I had often heard father say he wished that the wolves would attack him, for he would delight in a fight with them…” Samuel got his wish one night when wolves descended upon the camp. Samuel rescued a baby calf from the mouths of hungry wolves then beat them off while holding the calf over his shoulder. Apparently wolves never returned to the homestead again. 
IMG_4228Samuel died in 1884 at the age of 85 and instead of a traditional tombstone the McCluer’s made a replica of the family cabin. Members of his kin are also laid to rest near him with headstones shaped like stumps of wood. IMG_4489.JPG

8. Rutledge Cemetery (Roundhead, OH)

When people ask about my favorite cemeteries it’s not difficult to choose. There’s something moving about tiny family farm cemeteries dotting the countryside. Since moving from Indiana to Ohio I pass several of these little sites on my route. I finally mustered the courage to stop at this one. It was worth the sound of barking dogs coming from the nearby farmhouse and the uneasy feeling that someone was pointing a gun at me for approaching unannounced. I hope if the farm owners ever stumbled across this blog they know I visited with respect. IMG_4294 3.JPGThe Rutledges moved to Roundhead in 1832 after their mill burned to the ground in a nearby town. Richard Rutledge was Justice of the Peace and had two wives (Mary and Sarah) who bore many children that unfortunately died in childhood. The cemetery reflects this for which most of the interments are young people under age 20. The first Rutledge buried here was an infant in 1835. The last burial took place in 1911. 22 members of the Rutledge family are laid to rest in total at Rutledge Cemetery. The headstones are in pretty bad shape but the little green patch is well maintained amid the seemingly endless stretch of farmland.IMG_4482.JPG

7. Melrose Memorial Park (Orange, CA)

I have a penchant for going into cemeteries after dark. I popped into this one during another recent trip to California for new-job training. I didn’t stay long as the lighting wasn’t great. But I did notice that many graves had non-traditional markings like this. I’ve never seen a stick figure on a grave so this was a touching find. Makes me wonder if the child depicted at the top with “Dad” designed this for his mom.IMG_4343 3.JPG

6. Allegheny Cemetery (Pittsburgh, PA)

This one is a bit of a cheat as I didn’t visit Allegheny Cemetery in 2017 alone. I’ve been attached to this cemetery since I lived in PGH in 2014. I visit every time I go back to see friends. What I love about this cemetery is that every time I return it feels like home. 13423838_576381755854388_1951536562035813735_n.jpg

Happy 2018 Everyone!

Love,

Alysen

Best Cemeteries of 2017: Year In Review (Part One)

During the end of the holiday season I enjoy seeing everyone’s year in review posts across social media. It reminds me of a eulogy recounting all the good and letting go of the rest. It seems fitting to share my own 2017 memorial of memorials here. I chose my top ten but to keep word count reasonable split them into two posts. In no particular order here are the first five of my highlights from the past year!

5. Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Los Angeles)

In July my boyfriend and I traveled to Los Angeles. Of course my first request was to see the dead famous of Hollywood Forever Cemetery. While the list of celebrities was impressive on its own, what I found more touching was the amount of care and attention given to non-celebs. Burial sites like this are often covered with colorful trinkets and mementos:  IMG_3701.JPGEven if visitors go to see the lipstick-speckled tombstone of Johnny Ramone, they leave with a sense of celebration for all those laid to rest here. Hollywood Forever also hosts an amazing year-long event series including outdoor movies, concerts in the mausoleum, and a renowned Dia de los Muertos celebration. You can tell L.A. city-dwellers honor the cemetery as part of the community fabric and it’s anything but a somber place.
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4. El Campo Santo Cemetery (San Diego)

We visited El Campo cemetery during the same California trip and remarked on how different it was from the one we saw in L.A. El Campo was only in use from 1849-1880. Some of its 477 inhabitants have been paved over by the sidewalk and street. This occurred after the fall of Old Town in which the cemetery was abandoned and a streetcar line built directly through. It is affectionately known as the “Sidewalk Cemetery.”
IMG_3713 2.JPGThose interred include some of the region’s earliest pioneers. A group of native people who were executed for carrying out a raid against the burgeoning town of San Diego are also remembered. Infamous criminal, James “Yankee Jim” Robinson was hanged and buried for stealing the town’s only rowboat in 1852. He is said to haunt the adjacent Whaley Family Home. After much local petitioning in 1993 radar was used to locate bodies of those forgotten under the asphalt. Their remains are now marked by small round discs like the one shown below.IMG_4480.JPG

3. Clover Cemetery (Alton, OH)

If you’ve ever been in the car with me I’ve likely made you pull over to look at some cemetery by the side of the road. This one I spotted just outside Columbus in Prairie Township. It was first used in 1824 and I couldn’t find anything past the 1950s. This cemetery is technically abandoned as evidenced by multiple stones heaped in a pile of one corner. However the grounds are still being mowed. Small outpost cemeteries are interesting to me because those buried might have been members of an early church or extended families who shared a plot. If you were traveling through the region in the late 1800s/early 1900s and happened to die you would have also been placed here as it was cost prohibitive to ship bodies long distances by train (not to mention preservation techniques were not supremely advanced).
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2. Mount Calvary (Columbus, OH)

This cemetery has stolen my heart as a favorite in Columbus. The best part is the astonishing collection of Victorian era photo-ceramic memorials that adorn many headstones. The phenomenon is often found in Italian-American Catholic cemeteries of which Mount Calvary is one. IMG_4479.JPGAfter the invention of the daguerreotype in the 1830s ceramic portraits were quick to follow in 1854. Because photography was still relatively inaccessible and expensive a person had few pictures of themselves. The use of photo porcelain on monuments was widespread in Italy and sources suggest that the practice of affixing one’s portrait was a way for immigrants to maintain cultural ties. I especially love the ones that have sturdy covers. The tombstone below has two marked “Father” and “Mother” on metal lids that reveal a stunning photograph beneath.IMG_3964 3The other sobering thing is the number of babies buried at Mount Calvary. Toward the back fence is the oldest, most heavily populated area of young children and infants. I also found one of the saddest memorials ever–a handmade stone from 1916 with a girl’s ceramic photograph and epitaph explaining her death from falling down a well. She was only four. The cemetery is still active and also houses notable native, Anna Marie Hahn who was the first female serial killer executed in the Ohio electric chair in 1938.IMG_3975 3

1. Green Lawn Abbey (Columbus, OH)

The Abbey has been my saving grace this year. I’ll be honest that making friends post-college has been hard. Not to mention I have to explain that most of my hobbies center around cemeteries and death. Since I started volunteering to clean marble and help with events I’ve finally found my taphophile tribe. The historic mausoleum was built in 1927 and holds many Columbus-elite including the inventors of Swisher Sweets cigars and a famous magician. If you’re in the Columbus area and interested in volunteering please look us up here.

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…Thanks for getting through the first half. Check back tomorrow for part two!

-Alysen

(All photos by Alysen Wade. Please do not recreate without credit.)

 

Bedazzled Bones: Catacomb Saints and Catholicism

Bedazzled Bones: Catacomb Saints and Catholicism

I have long been fascinated by the opulence of Catholicism. While I’m not particularly religious I appreciate its moribund ritual depictions. Case in point: these exquisite corpses who were revered but largely forgotten in Europe after the 19th century called Catacomb Saints. A quick Google search suggests this name has not yet been claimed by some metal band.  for-smithsonian0014.jpg(Credit)

Catholics have been conspicuous about their elaborate iconography since before the 4th century A.D. Not all of the attention has been good and criticism gave way to church plunderings across Europe during the 1500-1700s. Opponents saw to it that once-cherished statues were systematically destroyed in protest. To bolster support and rebuild the church the Vatican sold bones to congregants and wealthy families that they passed off as official relics. The only problem was that most were not real relics, meaning they were not consecrated remains of actual canonized Saints. gorge.jpg(Credit)

To local churchgoers mainly in Germany and Switzerland whose communities inherited skeletons it didn’t matter much. While cadavers could have belonged to any commoner plucked from the Roman Catacombs, church officials pooled parishioner funds to purchase the expensive remains. Skilled nuns then spent years meticulously decorating their Saint’s bones. They became a source of regional pride and were even thought to perform miracles.3fe508bfd655a600016c0cff111c7927.jpg(Some were enshrouded in fine mesh cloth hand-woven by nuns. Credit)

Communities were unwavering in support even if their beloved Saint was found to be a fraud. Then in the late 18th century Austria’s Enlightenment-era emperor decreed all fakes were to be destroyed. The Saints were again marched to their graves, tucked away in cellars or ransacked for their gems. Paul Koudounaris, author of the book Heavenly Bodies notes that only 1 out of every 10 bodies that disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries survived for public display.Heavenly-Bodies-Cult-Treasures-and-Spectacular-Saints-.jpg(Credit)

I used to be put off by the seeming decadence of the Catholic Church. But since I’ve been studying historical deathways I can see how organized religions like Catholicism use the macabre and garish as a means to cope much like I do. I’m also struck by the sense of unity that being around such beauty evokes. It’s a way for communities to promote awe-inspiring if not complicated art in the face of death.IMG_4354.jpg(Saint Sepulchre Cemetery; Photo by Alysen Wade)

I feel this same sense of communion when I visit Catholic cemeteries with all their giant crucifixes and gilded statues. On a recent trip to Orange, California I was fortunate to witness a large family celebrating with a picnic around a relative’s burial site at Saint Sepulchre well into dusk. Even my Uber driver proudly remarked that his mother-in-law was laid to rest in the cemetery where he was dropping me off. It’s a lovely place and deserving of the praise. IMG_4355.jpg(Thanks to my friend and new co-worker, Alison for tipping me off to this beautiful place! Photo by Alysen Wade)

P.S. if you’re doing any world traveling here is a list of all the places where Catacomb Saints are located.

Cemetery by the Highway: Remembering Fort Wayne’s German Roots

Urban expansion offers many benefits that come with a cost.  Since the rapid spread of the metropolis began in the 1950s we’ve had to move a few bodies around. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for example, which now powers over 150 cities disinterred a record-breaking 20,000 souls in order to urbanize the terrain. My hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana found an interesting way to deal with a small graveyard hindering its development in 1956. Instead of decimating the dead populace the city chose to encircle them in an interstate. item353_full.jpg(The TVA maintained detailed records of each displaced cemetery including Hickory Grove Cemetery in Eddyville, Kentucky, 1939. Credit)

When I-69 began construction the area around the Coldwater Rd. interchange was owned by Saint Paul Lutheran Church. The cemetery originally belonged to the church and predated the highway by 72 years. Adjacent to the cemetery was the Rural Branch School also owned by the church in use from 1844 to 1920.st-paul.jpg(Photo Credit: Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter, NSDAR)

Sandwiched between a busy exchange at the highway’s northeast corner the cemetery has its own access road and parking lot off Coldwater Rd. The Mary Penrose Wayne Chapter (Daughter’s of the American Revolution) has catalogued 87 headstones. Though there may have been more that were damaged or removed. In 2010 a drunk driver plowed through the grounds destroying some of the earliest markers including the historical plaque shown above.Screenshot 2017-12-09 11.58.57.png(Google Maps)

I went to high school just up the street at Northrop and looked forward to driving past the tiny graveyard every morning on my commute. I stopped in a few times and was surprised to find the inhabitants were much older than expected. The earliest were laid to rest in the 1850s. The cemetery is no longer in use and the last person buried there is dated 1940. It wasn’t until my latest trip and subsequent research project for this blog that I realized how truly remarkable this historic site is: many of the engravings are in German verse. This is an important cultural touchstone for this particular region and time period because of anti-German sentiments that arose during WWI.
IMG_4325.jpg(German verses like this accompany many of the headstones though some are very worn. Photo by Alysen Wade)

During the 1840-50s German immigrants flocked to many cities in the Midwest due to affordable land and rail access. At its peak roughly 60-80% of Fort Wayne’s population shared German roots. Ethnic identity was strong in the city which published three daily newspapers entirely in German and put several high-ranking political figures in office. The German-American bank and Berghoff Brewing Co. were economic powerhouses. German parochial schools actually preceded the public tax-supported school system by a decade or more and conducted exclusively German curricula. Even the Indiana Constitution circulated an all-German version published in 1858. When the U.S. officially entered WWI in 1917 all that changed.Berghoff+Photo1+copy(Credit)image(Credit)

Within weeks German residents were mandated to file Alien Enemy Registrations. Local churches and schools were forced to stop conducting activities in German by 1918. Some financial institutions like the German-American bank changed their names to avoid the perception of any Kaiser links. The Allen County Public Library pulled German language books or anything German-sympathizing from the shelves.
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The effects of wartime propaganda shook the foundations of Fort Wayne’s German community for years to come. Historical accounts reveal that German-language use all but disappeared from public life during the years between the World Wars. Fort Wayne would not revitalize its pride until Germanfest began in 1981. While some families were reluctant to continue using their native tongues in public, I have to wonder if putting German verses on their tombstones was a subversive act. It was at least some small way of restoring a sense of dignity and heritage. I cannot be certain because I found no records to verify, but I wonder if Fort Wayne’s willingness to build around this uniquely German burial ground instead of destroying it was something of an apology. This cemetery and other memorials like it are good things to keep in mind next summer when you’re celebrating with a beer at your city’s cultural fests. For some people who live right in our backyards the simple expression of ancestry costs so much.IMG_4332(Photo by Alysen Wade)

 

Cemetery Fast Facts: Holiday Edition

Around the holidays awkward family silences scare me. If you’re the kind of person who needs to fill those horrendous pauses with weird stuff you read on the internet you have come to the right place:

1. Cemetery guns. This one might come in handy if you’re struggling to connect with that NRA-loving uncle. Not more than 200-300 years ago grave snatching was a serious problem all over the U.S. and U.K. The Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that bodies of murderers could not be buried. In attempt to deter other criminals, a person’s executed remains were publicly dissected or strung up on gibbets (a.k.a the post thing you draw when you’re playing a game of Hangman with your niece).

VC414-dissection scene-MOMedColl-ca1889_0.jpg(Students working on a cadaver at the MO Medical College, 1889. Credit)

Murder rates in Victorian-era England and the United States were relatively low. This made providing cadavers for important medical research difficult. The illegal corpse trade arose to fill a tremendous gap since an estimated 500 cadavers were needed each year to keep up with the burgeoning field of medicine. An offender dealing in this illicit industry (who was often an anatomy artist or physician himself) was known as a resurrectionist. Various methods were deployed by the bereaved to thwart grave robbery including bolted neck collars, special gates, and exploding coffins. Equipping cemeteries with firearms was another option.

Two_men_placing_the_shrouded_corpse_which_they_have_just_Wellcome_L0014659.jpg(Drawing by T. Rowlandson, 1775. Credit)

One of the last known cemetery guns is housed at a museum in Arlington Cemetery of Drexel Hill, PA. The gun would have been attached to a swiveling mechanism that was set at the foot of a newly dug grave. Stumbling over tripwires arched across the plot, body snatchers met their violent fate in the dark. But this trend didn’t last long. Guns had to be rented at an expensive weekly rate making them unaffordable to everyone but the upper classes. They were finally outlawed in 1827.CemeteryGun2.jpg.CROP.article920-large.jpg(One of the few remaining cemetery guns housed in PA. The museum dates it to 1710. Credit)

2. Public Executions. Hosting a law student or family lawyer? Strike up a conversation about this bewildering topic. No surprises here, the Romans were the first great champions of spectaclized death. Built specifically for the exhibition of blood sports the Colosseum was commissioned around A.D. 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people. Damnatio ad bestias, Latin for “condemnation to beasts” was the favored form of capital punishment around the 2nd century BC.Museum_of_Sousse_-_Mosaics_2_detail.jpg(Leopards attacking a criminal, Roman floor mosaic, 3rd century AD, Archaeological Museum of Tunisia. Credit)

Private executions were thought to be less humane because they robbed the damned of delivering a dramatic final speech. The state also used public executions to bolster public support and control over dissenters. For the sake of space I won’t go into the centuries-long tradition that includes common methods of punishment like crucifixion, burning, and the guillotine. Suffice to say public executions were standard practice in Europe and the U.S. until the 19th and early 20th centuries.The-Bells-of-St.-Sepulchre-1.jpg(The Execution Bell of St. Sepulchre was used to mark the execution of offenders at Newgate prison which is no longer in existence. Kept in a glass case at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate church. Credit)

We now look upon this practice with legitimate distaste. Yet in its heyday those who supported public capital punishment likely thought they were doing right by the citizenry by taking a preventative stance against crime and forcing onlookers to confront the complexities of death. However, historians note that these events had quite the opposite effect by encouraging crimes such as pickpocketing and public drunkenness. It was also common for fatal crowd stampedes to occur. The last formal public executions occurred in 1868 in Britain, in 1936 in the U.S. and in 1939 in France (warning, linked video contains material not suitable for children).bethea1a.jpg
(The execution of Rainey Bethea, who confessed to the rape and murder of a 70-year-old woman. Credit)

3. Potter’s fields. Got an aunt who loves genealogy? Demonstrate your knowledge of family detective work by mentioning the preponderance of these unmarked gravesites. It can sometimes be difficult to trace family roots because those buried at these locations were poor, homeless, or otherwise unidentified at the time of death. The term comes from Matthew 27:3 in the New Testament of the Bible and alludes to the non-usability of land which would have been full of holes after digging up clay for pottery making.17HART2-master675.jpg(A trench at the potter’s field of Hart Island, circa 1890. Credit Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York.)

The first known potter’s field was at Aceldama/Akeldama or Hakeldama (Aramaic for field of blood) located in Jerusalem. During the Crusades it was used to bury foreign patients who died in the hospital run by the Knights Hospitaller. It continued to be used as a burial place for non-Jews up to the first quarter of the 19th century. Early potter’s fields were not separate cemeteries but vacant portions of an existing churchyard or monastery. It is often difficult to trace the history of potter’s fields since they were usually unmarked or used only for short periods of time. Akeldama1.jpg(The hillside on which the Aceldama monastery stands is honeycombed with burial caves and tombs of unknown pilgrims. Credit)

Most major cities have potter’s fields that were designated by the municipality. If you do some digging in your own city you’ll likely find evidence of public cemeteries that were used to inter unclaimed inmates or those who died at psychiatric facilities for example. Even if they are given proper titles or housed within existing cemeteries these grounds are all characteristically known as potter’s fields or pauper’s graves. Sites may have few monuments and have often been repurposed for other public space. One of the best historical and heartrending accounts I found was published in this New York Times article about Hart Island in the Bronx. Among varying demographic groups laid to rest in potter’s fields the greatest percentage of interments are occupied by infants and immigrants. potters1.jpg(Ceremonies have not been conducted at Hart Island since the 1950s and no individual markers are set. Credit)

Happy Holidays and thanks again for supporting this weird little corner of the web!

-Alysen