It is a striking contrast: large tracts of land within the city that, for a very long time, were quiet places above and below ground. As the final resting sites of tens of thousands of Philadelphians, many burial grounds eventually became centers of lively childhood activity as playgrounds, parks, school yards, and ball fields. Historical records show this pattern repeated dozens of times all over the city.
“By the mid-to late 19th century, many of the cemeteries within the city were full. Many had fallen into disrepair, were overgrown, and with headstones knocked over,” said Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. “Established churchyards that were full moved to more open spaces within the city or in the suburbs, which required the relocation of graves.” This trend was spurred on by the advent of rural cemeteries, beloved by Victorian-era city dwellers for their open, park-like settings not too far from the city’s center where they could pay visits to their deceased. “It also coincided with a burgeoning health and hygiene movement,” added Mooney. “The old, overcrowded graveyards represented a risk to public health.”
After relocation of the burial grounds the neighborhood was left with a big, open area where the cemetery was, which was conducive to creating public amenities. In the aftermath of World War II, as Philadelphia approached its peak population level in 1950, the city made a big push to create more open spaces. The population boom drove a demand for more schools and that became another frequent use for the land from relocated graveyards.
However, these relocations weren’t always carried out as the written records claim. “I’ve been involved in more than a dozen cemetery excavations,” noted Mooney, “and I have not found a single one that was completely moved. Just because there’s a written record that graves were moved, it doesn’t necessarily meant they actually were.”
Even when there was a genuine attempt to be thorough, efforts were rarely refined. The moves were done by hand in the 19th century with the labor-intensive efforts carried out by untrained workers. “Sometimes they’d dig near the head of the grave shaft and take just the skull,” said Mooney. “Other times they’d only move the headstone.”
In many cases the original burial records, going back a century or more, were poorly kept or even nonexistent, adding to the confusion when relocations were incompletely done. Mooney cites the example of the William Dick School near 25th and Diamond Streets in Strawberry Mansion, which was built in 1954 on a portion of the former site of the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The graves were supposedly moved four years prior and relocated to Mount Peace Cemetery near Laurel Hill and Lawnview Memorial Park in Rockledge, Pennsylvania. During a greening project of the Dick School’s playground in 2013 a construction crew found 28 burials on the site. “There was an individual we recovered with his name clearly visibly stamped on the coffin,” recalled Mooney. “But Mount Peace said they had a record of him being relocated to their site.”
Some graveyards go down very deep with original remains getting reinterred further into the ground to accommodate additional layers of graves. How deep the relocation would go depended upon the intended development of the site. When such examples arise of incomplete moves there is a conflict between the relocation practices of past eras and the best practices of today’s archaeologists. “The first choice is to preserve the remains in place,” said Mooney. “If that’s not possible, they need to be respectfully moved.”
Whichever final outcome is chosen, there is an opportunity to collect historical information from the remains. “The body and its skeleton preserves a great deal of information about life in a certain time.” For example, trace elements present in bone provides data about the individual’s diet. “The City of Philadelphia had little to no health records in the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, information about minority populations was barely recorded,” explained Mooney. “So bodily remains can provide a tremendous amount of information.”
As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Philadelphia struggles with the issue of construction work constantly unearthing burial grounds. In response, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (PAF) developed a searchable online database of burial sites, gleaning information primarily from newspaper searches. “From 1800 to the present, we found 86 different instances of historic cemeteries being disrupted by construction,” said Mooney.
PAF hopes the map will be used by developers and government officials when planning new construction and rehabs. “That knowledge would allow them to plan ahead,” noted Mooney, rather than be caught by surprise after work has begun at a site.
Of particular concern is the Rebuild Program, one of Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature projects supported by the proceeds of the City’s embattled beverage tax, that will undertake capital improvements to city libraries, recreation centers, and playgrounds. One of the first projects is at Capitolo Playground at 900 Federal Street. Plans include installation of a new sprayground and the design of a new natural grass field and a soccer mini-pitch intended for smaller games. Capitolo Playground is on the former site of Lafayette Cemetery, established in 1828. After World War II, 47,000 bodies were supposedly moved to Evergreen Memorial Park in Bensalem. The move is one of the most egregious examples of the abuses that were rife in these situations.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story from October 1988, the City contracted with the owner of Evergreen Cemetery, Thomas A. Morris, in 1947 to relocate all of the Lafayette Cemetery remains there, with caskets, bronze markers, roadways, and perpetual maintenance of the grounds. Four decades later construction work adjacent to the memorial park uncovered a couple of unmarked burials. This led to an examination of the site that supposedly contained the Lafayette Cemetery burials, which revealed what appeared to be a few dozen 300-foot long trenches containing stacks of wooden boxes that contained human remains.
Mooney said the PAF has proactively contacted the Department of Parks and Recreation regarding the Capitolo Playground project and shared the burial database with them. According to Maita Soukup, associate director for communications for Rebuild and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, “We are aware that the site sits on a former cemetery. The design team is currently in the process of assessing the site.” She indicated that the City has contracted with the firm Commonwealth Heritage Group to provide an archaeologist for the design team and that any improvements made through Rebuild will be handled appropriately based on the findings. Given the massive number of graves that were supposedly moved, and the shady contractor that carried it out, it would be very surprising if there was no bodies left behind.
In other cases it is well known that a relocation, complete or otherwise, has never taken place and construction simply went up over the burial site. A prime example is Weccacoe Playground, originally named Weccacoe Square, built at Catharine, Queen and Leithgow Streets in Queen Village in 1905. It is the former site of the Bethel Burial Ground, which was the cemetery for Mother Bethel AME Church from 1810 until 1864. In a 2015 nomination by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the National Register of Historic Places, Aaron Wunsch, architectural historian and University of Pennsylvania professor, wrote that Bethel Burial Ground “appears to be the city’s oldest religiously affiliated African-American burial ground that is not a churchyard (that is, a graveyard adjacent to a church).”
In an attempt to address the interests of the residents who value the heavily used playground and those who want the site’s history acknowledged, the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) formed a committee in 2018 to convene public meetings and develop a Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial. In October 2019 an official state historical marker was erected on the site. The Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee is currently soliciting proposals from several finalists for their memorial, with an estimated construction date of Spring 2021.
OACCE is also sponsoring an exhibition, Bethel Burying Ground: A Tribute to A Sacred Place, at City Hall to honor the historic significance of those buried there and the early 19th century free black community they represented. It includes 100 church fans created by artists to pay tribute to specific individuals, including many children, buried at the site. “Walking into the exhibit you are hit with the magnitude of the story. 2,846 black men, women, and children are still buried on Queen Street,” noted historian Terry Buckalew, former committee member and author of the website Bethel Burying Ground Project. The exhibition is currently on view Monday through Friday from 10AM until 4PM in the Art Gallery, Room 116, at City Hall and in the first floor display cases until March 13, 2020.