Watery Graves

September 30, 2011 | by Katrina Ohstrom


photo: Katrina Ohstrom

After warily passing at least one Superfund site, hopping a couple of fences and trudging our way through an overgrown jungle, my companions and I found ourselves in the shadow of the Betsy Ross Bridge, at the surly edge of Philadelphia’s post-industrial wonderland. We were searching for the lost gravestones of Monument Cemetery, reputed to be visible at low tide, and despite knowing what we might find, the sight of the Delaware River gently lapping against countless partially submerged gravestones rendered us speechless.

How did these ornate granite and marble monuments end up as rip rap in the river? When? Did anybody even care? And what is rip rap anyway?

photo: Katrina Ohstrom

After we were finished crawling around on slimy rocks and up steep muddy banks peppered with broken glass and rusty metal, wiping sweat from our brows and hoping that our forearms weren’t covered in poison ivy (they were), and swatting away swarms of mosquitoes, we made our way back to where we had left our borrowed car, ate a much needed meal of perogies and borscht at the New Wave Cafe in Port Richmond, and went our separate ways, physically and emotionally exhausted from the afternoon’s adventure. As soon as I could, I got to work researching a history that stretched all the way back to 1837 and was infinitely more bizarre than I ever would have imagined.

The story begins again at 15th and Montgomery in North Philadelphia, on the astroturf field where Temple University’s lacrosse and field hockey teams play. For 119 years this was a cemetery, home to the remains of nearly 28,000 Philadelphians–Civil War veterans, scientists, textile workers among them.

Founded in 1837, at the height of an era of cholera, consumption, and dysentery, and called Père Lachaise–after the famous burial ground in northeast Paris–the rural cemetery attracted families who wanted a bucolic and hygienic setting for their loved ones. Soon renamed Monument Cemetery, it was designed–much like the Woodlands and Laurel Hill–to be an ornate, landscaped garden, suitable for strolling on a Sunday afternoon.


This plan endured into the late 19th century, when the neighborhood became crowded with factories and rowhomes and the once pastoral garden cemeteries in turn became rank urban ones.

After the Second World War, as Philadelphia reformers made an ambitious push to modernize neighborhoods, old cemeteries became easy targets for planners seeking new amenities like parking lots, playgrounds, stadiums and supermarkets.

photo: Katrina Ohstrom

Families of the dead were told they could relocate the remains and monuments; the unclaimed dead were moved to a court-appointed site, their monuments often destroyed. In the case of Monument Cemetery, the unclaimed gravestones were destined for a second life.

With plans to build athletic fields and a parking lot, Temple University acquired Monument Cemetery in 1956, after a protracted legal and public relations battle. The cemetery had run out of burial space in 1929 and with no income, it had become increasingly difficult to provide even minimum upkeep. Meanwhile the land–across the street from a growing public university–became valuable. Eventually, Temple convinced the city to condemn the property; title was transferred to the city then the University, which was saddled with the monumental task of relocating 28,000 bodies.

photo: Katrina Ohstrom

University officials contacted 748 families; 400 responded and 300 bodies and grave markers were moved to Lawnview Cemetery, in Montgomery County, and reinterred. Most of the rest were dumped into a mass grave at Lawnview, while the monuments themselves were sold to developers to serve as riprap to control shoreline erosion. Though many remain submerged, several are still visible from the river bank, especially at low tide.


About the Author

Katrina Ohstrom Katrina Ohstrom moved to Philadelphia nearly a decade ago where, constantly armed with at least one camera, she goes about her daily business and photographs anything that catches her eye. Her ongoing documentary projects include visual catalogs of the post-industrial wonderland that exists within the city she calls home, sub-sub underground experimental music and it’s players, and the humans behind the scenes in cat and dog show culture. In her spare time she enjoys, collecting animal skulls, conspiracy theories, gardening and long walks with her dog.


  1. David G says:

    That’s a hell of a story. Care to detail your route to get there?

    1. Allison says:

      I used to go when I was about 12. I am 27 now so it was a long time ago. If you’re facing the Betsy toward new Jersey you would stay to the right to follow the path all the way to the river. I think ky is fenced off now, but we used to Yale our bikes all the way to end. If you can get thru wo any legal concern then you just walk keeping the bridge on your left hand side until you reach the water. There used to be a hole in the fence we would climb thru. Just walk along the nanknid that’s even still possible and you will start seeing them. I remember one grave stone had the name Febe Mortimore on it. And there was an upside down car right near the stones. Right how I remember this after 16 years. I don’t know how safe it is bc it never really was safe so be careful!

      1. AndyZ says:

        Up until the mid 70’s or so you could actually drive back to the river thereif you didn’t mind risking your tires to all the broken glass and scrap metal

        1. Darlene says:

          I used to ride a dirt bike back there all the time with my then BF. Too bad it’s fenced off now.

  2. AxeMan says:

    OOOh so that’s what rip rap mean 😀

  3. Summer Owens says:

    Thanks for looking into this. My husband has several direct ancestors who were buried there and are probably now in the mass grave at Lawnview. It’s a depressing thought.

  4. Ruth I Birchett says:

    Thank you for your research and this story. Now Temple University and the city are conspiring to build a 35,000 seat football stadium on the site. Your article fits with my memory about the elders of our neighborhood arguing about “Temple and the city” wanting to tear down our houses on the west side of Broad Street. They were gathered on my sidewalk (on Norris Street) with brooms in hand.

  5. Carl says:

    During the early summer of 1980 My friend John and I hiked to the base of the Betsy Ross bridge. It was at low tide. The water was very calm. And it seemed to be lower then usual. We saw the grave stones almost 20 feet from shore. There was green moss on them and you can tell they normally are under water completely. It was a very disturbing thing to see. One marker was that of a civil war soldier a captain. I can’t remember the name but I believe it was Louis Fuller but I can’t be sure. It was very hard to see. The city of Philadelphia and Temple university conspired equally to do this despicable thing. I drove an ambulance in the 80s patients I transported told me how temple pushes the residents in the area out so temple could buy everything. And the city turns its back on them. Captain Fuller had the right to be left alone as did the others buried there. You can’t get back there anymore. They closed it up pretty good. Be careful if you try. The trash .rusty metal, and broken glass make it impossible to navigate it safely

  6. Sally says:

    Oh no. I just discovered that my great-great grandfather was buried there.

  7. Connie Nibarger says:

    What a tragedy, how disrespectful this University was, shpuld be responsibable for reburial.

  8. Bonnie Thomas says:

    What a shame. Hard to believe they would allow that much disrespect. Very sad ….

  9. Joan s wood says:

    Oh my gosh, did not realize where Monument Cemetery was really located. All I know my ggggrandmothers remains were to be moved either there or laurel hill
    Neither have any record of her.so the headstones in the river are not Monument it was located more near Broad Street, temple.

  10. John says:

    My great-great grandfather came to Philadelphia from Scotland in 1858. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia at age 40 in 1872. Even more unfortunately, he was buried in Monument. It is very depressing to think of him (and all the others buried there) being unceremoniously dumped into an unmarked grave in the name of “progress.” His wife was buried there as well when she passed away some years later. Such blatant disrespect for the dead should never, ever be allowed to happen.

    1. Bug says:

      You can call and see if they were relocated at lawnview .. and the grave would be on record .. not a mass grave

  11. Bob Lawrence says:

    I grew up under the BR bridge, well; not literally, it was our access to many natural, native and naughty things back in the early 80s. Thanks so much for the research and information as these Monument monuments have always intrigued me.

  12. Pam Covey says:

    And of course, this was all done so Temple could have something as important as sports fields there. Couldn’t even be something as a health research complex. I’m so glad they didn’t get their football stadium.
    I am particularly interested in the resting place of Anna Maria Ross, well-known Civil War nurse who was reburied in Lawndale, albeit without the lovely memorial she was given.

  13. John Gilbert Amero says:

    All of these old cemeteries, gone long ago, were so disrespected by political leaders and religions. Yes they probsbly should have been moved BUT those with no voice or descendants do not and did not deserve to be forgotten. Someone paid for those stones and humanity, Temple, and City Government said…
    – Going once, going twice, going three times…SOLD to buyer 12 to do as you want with the deads items. We don’t care.-

    How am i supposed to care about anyone on this planet when no one cares about each other?

  14. Laura says:

    Wow, What a horrible act of disrespect to our ancestor. To dump their remains in a mass grave like they were trash is just disgusting. And to throw their stones in the river to use as a embankment support the same monuments their loved ones would visit. Horrible, The lack of respect and dignity to the people that worked and lived to make the City of Philadelphia what it is today and then to basically spit on them. Such a disgrace

  15. Patricia Maichle says:

    I recently discovered that my 3rd Great Grandfather was one of those moved from Monument to Lawnview Cemetery. I am told that he is in an unmarked grave with 5 other bodies. I am horrified!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.