Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery – quite possibly the largest abandoned cemetery in America – is in the process of being saved from itself. Due to complaints and lawsuits in the early part of 2011, the city and several volunteer groups have stepped in to clean up the wildly neglected cemetery.
Now, the term “clean up” is a rather mild term. Only about twenty percent of Mt. Moriah’s (estimated) 380 acres can manageably be tended to with lawn mowers and weed whackers. The foliage covering the majority of the land has been allowed to grow wild for the past thirty years or more. No longer just a tedious grounds-keeping effort, the herculean task of roughing in a Victorian cemetery out of a veritable forest now requires chain saws, wood chippers, and more labor than you can possibly imagine.
(Gatehouse 1977 photo from Temple University Librairies, Urban Archives)
How did Mount Moriah get this way?
The cemetery, established in 1855, lies on the outskirts of the city, in the southwest portion near the International Airport. It was well-maintained until roughly the mid-1970s, by which time it had grown to be the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania. However, something began to go awry – it appears that the Board of Directors began losing interest as its members died off. Rumor has it that the fellow who managed the cemetery at the time helped himself to Civil War relics and jewelry buried in the crypts, as well as to the stained glass from the grand mausoleums. Although much of the cemetery is an atrocity today, Mt. Moriah in its heyday was far from being a pauper’s burial ground. Betsy Ross and other notables were buried in this immense grand Victorian Cemetery (Betsy was exhumed in 1976 and reburied at her house in Philadelphia’s Ole City district).
Fraternal organizations and other social groups
The huge white marble pillar in the center of the cemetery’s densely wooded Circle of St. John marks the original Masonic lodge area. Part of the original plan for the cemetery was to sell large plots to veterans’ and fraternal organizations as a way to guarantee future growth (and income). Today many of these groups have ceased to exist or haven’t the money to maintain the plots (though one veterans’ group does keep the grass cut in two separate veterans’ plots on the grounds). A century ago cemeteries didn’t have to rely solely on their own hired personnel for grounds keeping – plot owners, their heirs, and descendants made it their business to visit frequently and keep the plots tidy. It was just the way things were done back then. As American society became more mobile and people moved all over the country, many lost interest in tending the old graves. It became incumbent upon the cemeteries to stretch their funding to find ways of keeping up the grounds.
Mount Moriah’s recent past
The past thirty-five years have had their way with Mount Moriah. As the neighborhood deteriorated,gangs congregated, trees grew wild, stolen cars were driven in and torched. Most of the land was so wildly overgrown by the early 2000s that it was quite easy to hide a marijuana patch in the weeds; prostitution in parked cars occurred in the heavily wooded areas (both of which I’ve seen). A section of the cemetery continued to be used for burials until 2011, however.
Although by this time most of the cemetery’s internal roadways were blocked with piles of trash, the southeast portion of the land along Kingsessing Avenue, between the crumbling gatehouse and 61st Street maintained regular burials. This amounted to about forty acres into which grass was cut, graves were dug, and headstones were set (albeit haphazardly). The people who ran the business catered to those with a low budget, keeping it one of the least expensive burial spots in the city. Mt. Moriah was also the only Philadelphia cemetery that allowed Muslim burials.
Who runs this cemetery?
But who were these people digging graves and setting stones? They sometimes staffed the office and occasionally answered the phone. By 2011, people who had paid for recent burials began to get upset over the conditions, which had been steadily deteriorating. More piles of dumped building materials appeared, trees and weeds obscured graves preventing visitor access, headstones were not placed when paid for. The main fences had been ripped apart and packs of wild dogs roamed the grounds.
Then came a lawsuit by a plot owner at the end of 2010. By early 2011, the people in the office fled. Gone. After a few news articles and television broadcasts about the state of affairs, the city stepped in and barricaded the entrances and confiscated the records in the office. Pursuant to legal action, it was determined that the cemetery has no legal owner! No one could be held accountable. It is unclear as to whether the people who were taking your money and digging your graves were actually agents of the long dead owners or just squatters!
Current State of Affairs at Mount Moriah
People ask me, “How do cemeteries get abandoned?” Sometimes it’s simple – a cemetery gets filled up leaving no more room for burials. With no income, the owners abandon it. I would say that up until the 1970s in the United States, this was fairly common. Today, there would be much public outcry. In fact, cemetery owners today have the opinion that they sell the only product that must PERPETUALLY be maintained! And they must find ways to meet that commitment. Mount Moriah’s situation is a very complex example of how a cemetery becomes abandoned. Because the process went on for decades, it is quite difficult to pinpoint cause and effect. There are pieces of the puzzle that may never be found. Perhaps someday someone will uncover the facts and write a book about it, similar to Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (about the slow, twenty-year death of the small town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, 1890 – 1910).
For now, however, all we have is the City of Philadelphia’s official pronouncement and current legal situation, which you can read here: Beginning to Die – The Strange State of Mt. Moriah Cemetery.
Neighbors in an Uproar
I have been visiting Mt. Moriah since about 1997, and have seen it steadily deteriorate. In 2010, when I began writing my Cemetery Traveler blog, I began making purposeful visits to the cemetery, and writing about the conditions. While it generated a large amount of interest and publicity, it didn’t go over very well with the neighbors.
People living near the cemetery sometimes take offense at what I write about it (also with the photographs I publish), mainly because the cemetery is their backyard. I suppose it’s akin to criticizing them personally, or their private property (which I most certainly am not doing). Back in 1998, I treated the cemetery as nothing more than a side-show attraction, photographing its roaring silence the same as I would a car wreck. I didn’t question the situation, I just confirmed it. As my understanding of the predicament grew, my perspective changed. I wanted other people to know about this. So was I being sensationalistic with my photos and publishing blogs with titles like “Hell Hounds of the Abandoned Cemetery” and “No One Hears an Abandoned Cemetery Scream?” Well, yes. How else are you supposed to get peoples’ attention?! While many of the concerned neighbors were (and are) trying to make a difference, they needed help.
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery
In 2011, the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery was formed by a variety of volunteers “to address the chronic neglect of the landmark cemetery”
The city began to pitch in, sending garbage trucks to haul away the piles of old mattresses, tires, and dumped building materials. Since then, the Friends have organized about six official clean-up days, and many more unofficial ones. You can read about them at the links below, and log on to the Friends website to see the schedule. All are invited to help.
How does one get into the cemetery?
People ask me if you can get into the cemetery to take photographs. Sure, there is relatively no fencing left anywhere and the cemetery doesn’t have opening and closing times. The entrances are either barricaded or gated, so it’s not always possible to get your car inside. Visiting doesn’t have to be seasonal, but if you want to see as much of the grounds as possible, go after everything dies (the foliage, I mean). Winter is best, summer is worst. In summer, weeds, trees, vines, and poison ivy make it impossible to see anything but the groomed twenty per cent of the cemetery.
You can certainly walk through the place, but driving is not easily done. The roadways are treacherous and full of potholes, and some roads are still overgrown with weeds and trees. Philadelphia Animal Control rounds up the packs of wild dogs that form every few months, but keep in mind that most of the cemetery is still densely wooded – you will see foxes scurrying about and hawks swooping through the trees. As a final note, if you visit, don’t go alone. The locals disapprove of me saying this, but in all candor, they are a rather hardy lot. First-timers should have at least walking companion.
The Future of Mount Moriah Cemetery
As long as the City of Philadelphia occasionally sends out a team of weed-whacking people and continues to sponsor the volunteer clean-ups, the groomed twenty per cent of the cemetery can stay that way. I’ve worked a few of the clean-up days, and am rather amazed that a hundred volunteers can only do so much in one day. Many people care about the cemetery, and are doing what they can to clean it up, saw down trees, remove dumped trash, and even patrol the place at night. However, to make significant progress toward restoring the cemetery to its original grandeur, loggers and stone workers, grounds crews, heavy machinery, and active management are needed. Unless the city can successfully transfer ownership of the cemetery to an entity that will continue the work of restoration and continue active burials (for income), Mount Moriah’s situation is tentative, at best.
References and Links:
Chronically arranged Mount Moriah Cemetery Traveler blog postings: