by Ed Snyder
Last weekend [editor’s note: actually August 28, 2010], my friend Frank and I explored Mount Moriah Cemetery (established 1855) in Southeast Philadelphia. Although I’d been there innumerable times, it’s been years since I’d explored the central monument area, which is way overgrown with trees, cascading picker vines, and poison ivy. Essentially, it’s a forest, only with tombstones in it!
Frank had heard stories about the cemetery being wild and untamed. He asked me if he should bring a weapon. A weapon? Well, maybe boots and long pants (even in this heat), because of the deer ticks. Truth be told, Mt. Moriah is in a rundown section of town (where all the best cemeteries usually are), and I agreed that we should at least bring baseball bats. However, he was referring to the “family of wild pit bulls” he heard lived in the cemetery! I had my doubts.
I figured if there was a family of pit bulls, they’d be living in some shelter, e.g. the crumbling brownstone gatehouse. So we decided that should be our first stop! Upon arriving, we explored but found only sordid bedding littered with condom wrappers and piles of tombstones. Tombstones? Some from the late 1800s, some from 2006. Why? In looking at Mount Moriah’s website [which was taken down in 2012], it appeared that stones got moved, then disappeared. A genealogist’s nightmare. They also said if you’re planning to visit the cemetery, “It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration, and disappointment.” Hm. Now that’s enticing.
We actually found some interesting things in the open and trimmed newer section of the cemetery (on Kingsessing Avenue), like this marble monument to the Monitor, the Civil War submarine that engaged the Merrimac in the famous battle of the ironclads. Quite a find, certainly not disappointing! We also peeked into the chained-up mausoleum nearby and were surprised to see a shattered marble crypt door, which allowed a rare voyeuristic view of the century-old wooden casket inside.
We decided to drive as far as we could into the main section of the cemetery, where the tops of very elaborate, expensive, and graffitied monuments peek out of the brush. Some of the original weed-covered roads are still used by people to deliver old sofas and tires to their final resting place, so they are somewhat drivable (a jeep would be your vehicle of choice here). The monument you see in the photo at left is in the center of the forest, and commemorates an 1862 Masonic “Grand Tyler.” Its column must be 40 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base, topped with the largest marble compass I’ve ever seen. After hacking our way to the base of it, Frank astutely pointed out that I was standing knee-deep in poison ivy! We made our way out of the thicket and back to the car.
Driving through this jungle, straddling washed-out craters in the road, and avoiding being whipped in the face by tree branches was like being on one of those Disney rides or Universal Studios—you half-expect a velociraptor to poke its head out of the thicket. Which is about when we saw the pit bulls!
Two large brown puppies went scampering off down a path near the Keystone monument above. We stopped earlier to photograph it, but hadn’t noticed the dogs. Of course, we were looking up at the time. Gee, let’s get out now and see how protective the mother is! No, really, at that point, I wished the convertible top of my car went up a bit faster. We decided to bravely drive away.
At one point on a side road — a path, really — we dead-ended at a pile of lumber and other rubbish. (Here’s my car at that point.) As I backed the car out for about ten minutes to get to a different side road so we could turn around without getting lost, it became apparent to me that Saabs are just not good off-road vehicles. Well, the cemetery’s website did say to be prepared for confusion and frustration….
With a sigh of relief, we found our way out of the woods into a clearing, and then back to familiar territory: the pile of unused concrete crypts near the gatehouse. We were certainly not disappointed that the mama pit bull decided to keep a low profile that day.
Is Mount Moriah a sad commentary on our city or a wondrous attraction for the urban explorer of abandoned places? I can’t be judgmental as to the former and am sorry that the cemetery has been allowed to devolve to this sad state. However, it allows one to contemplate the detritus of human endeavor. We erect monuments to the deceased (ourselves) for a purpose, but attempts to preserve memories can be undermined. Vandals, time, and weather erode efforts at immortality. The corruption of the cemetery seems to affirm, rather than deny, the decay down below. Seeing it in this condition, you feel you are witnessing the final disappearance of the spirits of the interred.
I wrote the above account in 2010, never guessing that years later I would find myself on the Board of Directors of a Friends group making every attempt to save this massive historic cemetery. How it got to the condition I described in 2010 seems to have been a result of gross mismanagement and negligence—perhaps 100 years of this. When Harry Houdini visited the grave of his idol Robert Heller here in 1910, he was dismayed at the condition of the cemetery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If people join together for a common goal, miracles sometimes happen. Respect for the dead is a powerful thing.
I published a few posts like the one above on my Cemetery Traveler blog between 2010 and 2012 and got quite a few people riled up. Local residents, descendants of those interred, the City of Philadelphia, and numerous other concerned citizens nationwide were appalled and irate.
The situation at the cemetery got to the point where the City of Philadelphia felt obligated to step in and haul away the abandoned cars, round up the feral dogs, and barricade the entrances. A grassroots Friends group formed: The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI). After a few run-ins with them, they became convinced, as did I, that I wanted to help save the cemetery. At approximately 300 acres and over 80,000 graves, Mount Moriah is possibly the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania. It likely was the largest abandoned cemetery in the U.S. in 2010.
It is no longer abandoned. The FOMMCI has worked tirelessly since 2012, engaging thousands of volunteers to clean up and take back from nature this overgrown green space in urban Philadelphia. If not for the efforts of so many concerned with showing respect for our dead, Mount Moriah would have been left to die on the vine — or by the vine, more literally.
Such a dramatic display of volunteerism is hardly revolutionary (although Betsy Ross is in fact buried here); however, the sustained effort certainly is. The recently formed Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation was legally given control of the property in 2014.
In the words of Mount Moriah resident John Whitehead’s (1948-2004) 1979 hit song, there “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” I continue to photograph and document Mount Moriah’s restoration progress on my Cemetery Traveler blog. For more information and a detailed history of the cemetery, please visit the FOMMCI website and Facebook group.
The first part of the this essay was published as “Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery”on Ed’s Cemetery Traveler blog. I invited him to update it, since I’m excited by all the work he’s inspired at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Ed Snyder’s photography and writing converge to help society come to terms with death and dying. These creative processes help him deal with the world, with personal issues, and even to judge himself. (In retrospect, psychiatry would’ve been cheaper.) Spending time in cemeteries has helped him to prepare himself for the loss of loved ones. Seeing others find meaning in his work is an unexpected gift. Ed says, “What strikes me about the cemeteries of the Victorian era is the tremendous emphasis on art in people’s remembrance of the dead. It is almost as if their respect was more profound.”
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.