Graveyard

Lecture Review – Dr. Richard Veit: “Stranger Stop and Cast and Eye: 400 Years of New Jersey Cemetery Evolution and Gravestone Design”

Dr. Richard Veit is an atypical historian. While most would discourage societies from “burying the past”, he wants them to do a lot of it. The professor is an anthropologist with a unique field of expertise. Dr. Veit studies the history of cemetery evolution and gravestone design. He unearthed this topic at the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 28, 2016.

This lecture was part of the Historical Society’s New Jersey History Speaks Speaker Series. While many history talks take place in lecture halls or library conference rooms, this one occurred in the living room of an historic home. I enjoyed the cozy environment at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. As I arrived early the Society’s President, Lenny Wagner, provided guests with a brief history of the home, itself. In a sense, the organization treated me to two informative discussions in one evening. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Historical Society of Moorestown since 2006.)

Dr. Veit is currently Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His knowledge of New Jersey cemeteries and gravestones proved these aren’t ceremonial positions. He entertained the group with an enlightening disquisition on the subject. It may seem strange to use a word such as entertained to describe an historical lecture on a topic so close to death, but that’s the right one. The professor presented material that could have been dry and dreary, in a witty and affable fashion.

The breadth of the lecture impressed me. Aside from elucidating 400 years of history, Dr. Veit’s comments covered the entire state. He explained that different parts of New Jersey had gravestone designs endemic to their areas. Of interest to residents of South Jersey he discussed the “Philadelphia influence” during the Colonial Era. This entailed the importing of marble from Pennsylvania for tombstones. In northern parts of the state, slate imported from New England became vogue.

I knew that grave markers benefited genealogists. My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany’s showed me which unit he served in during the First World War. Dr. Veit displayed phots of some that contained much more detail that that. He jokingly referred to a few of them as a “resume”. Irish markers tended to describe where the deceased grew up in Ireland, when they arrived in the United States, when they married, how many children they had, etc. That would be a monumental source of information for anyone researching his/ her family history.

I learned something I never would’ve imagined. Tombstones served as early sources of advertising. Carvers would inscribe their names on the markers they chiseled. This may seem disturbing to modern sensibilities, but with the absence of photography and mass marketing, people did what they could to ensue name recognition.

In the midst of all these entertaining facts, the professor slyly snuck in some serious historical lessons. He explained how graveyards are a reflection of their historical times. During the Colonial Era, few markers contained crosses. People living in that time viewed them as a “Catholic” influence. While ubiquitous today, some 250 years ago crosses only appeared on some French graves.

The part of the talk that amused me the most concerned the mausoleums. They became very fashionable resting places for captains of industry around the dawn of the 20th Century; predominantly in urban areas. Dr. Veit displayed pictures of one he visited. He described it as having room for the deceased “and about thirty of his closest friends.” As the professor visited during the Holiday Season, the tomb contained multiple Christmas Trees and wreaths inside. To my eyes the ambiance and marble floors made it appear more like a mall than a burial place.

Dr. Veit began his remarks by calling cemeteries, “great sources of information.” Just how much information one can discover there amazed me. The amount of information the speaker possessed impressed me even more. I enjoyed the professor’s engaging jocularity and erudition. I’d welcome the opportunity to see him again. I just hope that time comes before he’s studying my tombstone.

Advertisements

In the Footsteps of Ghosts

In his 1881 classic play Ghosts, playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote about a family haunted by figurative ghosts from its own past. As we prepare for the upcoming Halloween season of ghosts, ghouls, and specters what better place to seek the ghosts of our own history than in graveyards? In past issues of this publication I’ve written about various sources for locating information regarding one’s genealogy. Eerily enough one of the most interesting I’ve found is a cemetery.

            My Great-Grandfather Michael Stephany was a veteran. Appropriately enough he’s buried at a military cemetery. I found a lot of valuable information about him from visiting his grave. His head stone at BeverlyMemorialCemetery listed him as being from Pennsylvania and as serving in the First World War. The crucifix engraved on the headstone indicated that he was a member of the Christian faith. It had his rank listed as Private First Class. He served in the 313th Field Artillery of the 80th Infantry Division. Of course, it had the main pieces of information every genealogical researcher longs for: his dates of birth and death.

            Cemetery records also contain a wealth of information. I found out from my 4X Great-Grandfather Joseph McClay’s death certificate that he worked in the liquor business. This was a great find, because I’ve always been curious as to where I inherited my long standing interest in the liquor industry. (Admittedly, my ancestor worked in the distribution end of the business whereas I’ve been more drawn to the consumption end of it.)

           Curiously enough, he and his wife, Mary, both have the unusual distinction of having moved after they passed away. They were both interred at OddFellowsCemetery in Philadelphia in the 1870s. Their graves were moved in the early 1950s when the land was converted into a housing project. It’s horrifying that even in death one can’t escape the reach of government.   

            The most fascinating thing about visiting graveyards is that you never know what you’re going to find. I learned this when I visited my great-grandmother’s grave. My great-grandmother Violet Bishop Connelly was the family historian. She knew all kinds of things about our ancestry. She said that the city of Coatesville, PA was named after one of our relatives. She told the family that we were related to the famous explorer Zebulon Pike. She even found that we were related to two presidents of the United   States (William Henry and Benjamin Harrison) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison). In addition, her Great-Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop played a role in the American Revolution. Her Grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, served in the American Civil War. Some of her ancestors immigrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s. When I found out she was buried in a Bishop family plot at OaklandCemetery in Philadelphia, I figured there was going to be this huge monument to the Bishop Family; something rivaling the types of monuments one would find in Washington, D.C.

            I called the cemetery ahead of time and got the section and location of the family plot. My dad also found the deed to my great-grandmother’s plot. I headed over there one Saturday afternoon with my father. In spite of all this information we had we ended up wandering around for at least a half-an-hour looking for it. It took a kindly groundskeeper who went out of his way to go to the front office and get maps and a burial card to take us to the grave. Wouldn’t you know it, the grave was unmarked! There were seven members of the Bishop family buried there. There was a marker that only had two of their names (her brother’s and sister-in-law’s): not my great-grandmother’s or even her parents’! This was one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life.

            The thing that bothered me the most about this experience was that I don’t have any idea why her grave is unmarked. I would have thought that someone so interested in genealogy and history would leave something so that future generations of the family can find where she’s buried. My great-grandmother had three children: two of whom are living. Unfortunately, age and memory don’t permit them to tell me why. I asked two of her grandchildren and they didn’t have any idea why there’s no marker either.

        One clue I did find was that whenever I ask anyone to describe my great-grandmother the first word they always use is humble. I learned from the Ghost Tours presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown that orthodox Quakers didn’t have grave markers because they believed them to be a sign of pride. I know my some of my great-grandmother’s ancestors were Irish Quakers. That’s one possible reason why there’s nothing identifying her grave, but unfortunately I’ll never get a definitive answer as to why.

        While it may sound macabre to some, visiting cemeteries and reviewing cemetery records can provide a wealth of information to genealogical researchers. As I know from my own personal experience, the results can be scary or even unexplained. But aside from the wealth of data we can gain from this, let’s face it: paying our respects to relatives who have gone before us is just the right thing to do. If I may paraphrase the greatest philosopher who ever lived, a man named Yogi Berra, you should visit your relatives’ final resting places. If you don’t they’re never going to visit yours.