Historic cemeteries struggle to return from decades of neglect
For the most part, historic burial grounds do not get the same attention that is paid to birthplaces or battlegrounds. In Pennsylvania, some historic cemeteries have been relocated and the land redeveloped; other sites are neglected and overgrown; and some have been completely lost.
The most at-risk cemeteries in the state include burial grounds from Philadelphia to Westmoreland County, to Venango, Potter and Lackawanna counties. They range from pioneer burial sites to Civil War graves to late-19th century memorial parks.
On the list of priorities for historic preservation, cemeteries tend to rank low. But there is some movement to protect the sacred grounds.
"These places deserve to be saved," said Carla Zambelli, who is working to research and preserve a long-overlooked graveyard in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. "Those people meant something to someone."
While historic buildings and other sites have opportunities for government protection on local or national historic registers, cemeteries are rarely designated on such lists. If they are listed, it is for a particular building or gatehouse by a renowned architect, or for some outstanding cultural or design feature, rather than the stories of the interred.
Many of the older cemeteries have become wards of the state or their local towns because the original congregations or organizations that operated them have faded or moved on. The municipalities that inherit them often consider cemeteries a drain on the budget, and maintenance is infrequent at best.
Survival falls on the caretakers or institutions that may still run them and their "financial wherewithal," explained Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor in University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program.
Overlooking the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, Laurel Hill Cemetery, established in the 1830s, is the model of a burial ground that has remained a vibrant space, despite limited available land. It offers creative programming including a Halloween ball, movie screenings, and guided tours. "It's reinvented itself more as a cultural institution than as a cemetery," Wunsch said.
In West Philadelphia, The Woodlands, another survivor of the Rural Cemetery movement — cemeteries that are landscaped in a park-like setting — has evolved into a beloved neighborhood park that hosts 5K runs, a Grave Gardeners program, and cultural activities.
This first generation of rural cemeteries, which originally served elite and affluent families of the city, are doing well, but the next generation of cemeteries built in the 1850s has often struggled, Wunsch said. "They were not as well known or as financially stable to begin with."
Many have disappeared. Graveyards established by fraternal groups like the Oddfellows and United American Mechanics along the Philadelphia's Ridge Avenue vanished as the area was redeveloped for commerce and housing. Older Jewish cemeteries are now under threat in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, where congregations dispersed and the graveyards became inaccessible and cut off.
"There are other burial grounds that we don't know about at all," Wunsch said.
Restoring hallowed grounds
Carla Zambelli grew up in Philadelphia's Society Hill section, and played among the headstones of the historic St. Peter's Church. Now a freelance photographer "obsessed with old barns and farmhouses," she stumbled upon the 184-year-old Ebenezer AME Church cemetery in Chester County by accident.
A headstone at the Ebenezer AME Church cemetery (Carla Zambelli)
"I was photographing in the area and saw this ruin that I thought was a former outbuilding of a farm, just frozen in time," Zambelli said. "I started walking through the weeds behind the building and saw a grave, then more, and realized what it was."
Zambelli has since connected with a small circle of residents and researchers who have identified the graves of African-American Civil War soldiers, freed slaves and other members of the church, which was abandoned in the 1900s. "Congregations die off, the people who manage the cemeteries die off, support runs off," Zambelli said.
The neighbors and historians have enlisted the help of Boy Scout troops to clear some of the overgrowth on the two-acre tract. Meanwhile, the group searches for institutional support to undertake the full restoration of the site and a way to maintain it.
The Ebenezer AME cemetery is one of 42 burial grounds of black Civil War troops identified so far by the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project, launched in 2009 to raise awareness of these cemeteries and establish ways to preserve them. The small volunteer group received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to host annual gatherings of preservationists and caretakers who share strategies to meet the challenges of protecting the burial sites.
"Before and after the Civil War, many African-Americans lived in rural Pennsylvania communities or in cities, and the cemeteries in both areas were often neglected and located there was extra land," explained Brenda Barrett, a leader of the Hallowed Grounds Project. "The cemeteries were not always set up like white cemeteries; there were always the challenges of funding and discrimination, issues of race and class."
When Barbara Barksdale returned after many years to visit her grandfather's grave in the 1990s, she found the cemetery in Swatara Township, near Harrisburg, was covered in weeds and brush and under consideration for a housing development.
The Midland Cemetery had been established in 1795 and became the resting place of slaves, freed men and women, members of the United States Colored Troops, Buffalo Soldiers, and other leaders of the community, Barksdale learned as she studied "the rich history of the grounds."
Barksdale, now a coordinator of the Hallowed Grounds Project, helped lead the restoration and protection of the historic, 3.5-acre site, which contains several thousand graves. "Midland now looks like a park where people enjoy time with their families," she said.
The Friends of Midland was able to rally the support of borough and township leaders, veterans groups, the Dauphin County Commissioners and county prison, preservationists and other professional groups and organizations, and the group holds Days of Service that inspire the community to maintain the grounds. Efforts continue to identify and tell the stories of those buried at Midland, and Barksdale hopes to engage area students in the research.
Creating a plan
Among the participants in the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project in West Chester in October was John Bry, a private preservation consultant and president of the Tioga County Development Corporation.
In 2008, while serving as eastern program coordinator for the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, Bry moved into the Harrisburg Cemetery. "I had the opportunity to live in the old superintendent's house, and I jumped at it. I was always interested in cemeteries," he said.
The issues involved in protecting historic cemeteries are nationwide challenges, and "they're not going away," Bry said. "There is a lot of good work from organizations focused on physical conservation of the gravestones and land, but there's usually not a larger, comprehensive discussion. People may rally around a site and fix it up, and everything looks good and they think crisis averted. But in a few years, the same problems return."
Bry has composed a list of the 12 top At-Risk Historic Cemeteries in Pennsylvania, which includes Mount Moriah in Philadelphia, Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery, and despite its progress, Midland Cemetery. Other threatened sites are in Cherry Tree Township, Utica, Cooperstown, Hemfield Township, Schellersburg, Coudersport, and Scranton. Many more sites are in serious decline.
Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia (John Bry)
According to Bry, there are five issues to address in preserving historic cemeteries.
The first is master planning. "We have to think about long-term plans for the property and how it fits into the community it serves. These were once symbols of civic pride and advancement," Bry said. "But what space do we have now, and how do we utilize it?"
Maintenance of the landscape and physical aspects of the stones is a major concern, followed by money, and how to raise revenue through a variety of sources and engage communities, especially for sites that have limited capacity and are no longer active cemeteries.
The other issues are effective management, through a nonprofit board or organization, and marketing of the site through heritage tourism or programming that is not necessarily related to the property's original purpose. "Sometimes you have to forget it's a cemetery, and think outside the box."
What Pennsylvania needs, Bry said, is a state historical cemetery commission that provides information and expertise for each community. Oregon has such a commission, and New York has a division of cemeteries that provides similar services. Bry's ultimate hope is for the establishment of a national historic cemetery organization with comprehensive models that communities can use to develop a strategy to reclaim and preserve their burial grounds.
The starting point, he said, would be the creation of a state register that locates and recognizes the significance of the historic sites.
Brenda Barrett, of the Hallowed Grounds Project, agreed. "We need some notice of where cemeteries exist, so when [development] projects arise, we are aware of what is there. This is so much at risk."
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