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?
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.
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.
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.