Cemeteries have been integral features of the Philadelphia-area landscape since the earliest European settlements of the mid-1600s. Over the centuries, and in tandem with developments such as epidemics, immigration, industrialization, war, and suburbanization, the region’s cemeteries matured from small, private grave sites, potter’s fields, and church burial yards to rural cemeteries, national cemeteries, and memorial parks. From the colonial period to the present, cemeteries reflected the area’s religious, economic, and cultural diversity. As Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) once remarked, “Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you want kind of people you have.”

A color photograph of a group of people (many wearing hats) looking through a iron bar fence at the gravestones of Benjamin Franklin and his family. Some of the brick wall and other gravestones are visible on the left side of the image.
Nearly 70 years after Benjamin Franklin’s burial in 1790, his gravesite was altered to allow the public to easily view and access his tomb. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Prior to Philadelphia’s inception in 1682, Swedish colonists settled along the Delaware River roughly from New Castle, Delaware, north to the future site of Penn’s Landing. At Fort Christina just east of Wilmington, Delaware, they erected a burial yard in 1642, believed to be the area’s first of European design. The first European church cemetery opened in 1646 on Tinicum Island southwest of the future site of Philadelphia International Airport; floodwaters from the Delaware River submerged the site within a decade. Determined to prevent future damage to their grave sites, the Swedes in 1677 erected the Gloria Dei (“Old Swedes”) Church at present-day Christian Street and Columbus Boulevard. The burial ground in its adjacent yard is Greater Philadelphia’s oldest surviving cemetery. In 1698, Wilmington’s Holy Trinity Church was erected next to the former Fort Christina burial ground. Prior to its closing, Holy Trinity’s cemetery contained 15,000 burials, including members of the prominent Bayard, Montgomery, and Du Pont families.

During the colonial and early national periods, one’s burial place denoted religious affiliation and class distinction. When Quaker families arrived in the 1670s and 1680s, they established plain, unadorned burial yards next to their meetinghouses. In towns such as Cape May Court House, Camden, Trenton, Salem, and Burlington, these emerged as South Jersey’s earliest formal cemeteries. When William Penn (1644-1718) and surveyor Thomas Holme (1624-1695) devised the Philadelphia grid system, their plan included four squares for public use, yet no officially designated cemeteries. Their omission stemmed from the belief that burial grounds were sectarian responsibilities.

Quaker Graves Were Simple

Penn’s Quaker faithful interred their dead behind the Arch Street Meetinghouse without official ceremony or elaborate markers. Conversely, Philadelphia’s Anglicans, who opened cemeteries at Christ Church (est. 1695, Second and Market Streets) and St. Peter’s Church (est. 1761, Third and Pine Streets), fashioned headstones and markers of considerable ornamentation. In 1719, Christ Church’s leaders purchased a tract at Fifth and Arch Streets (then the city’s outskirts) to accommodate more interments. Over time, Christ Church’s graveyard became the city’s most elite, containing the remains of Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, Benjamin Rush, and several prominent Philadelphians. Other Protestant sects, including Lutherans, Methodists, and Moravians, also established cemeteries next to their houses of worship. Wilmington’s first Methodist cemetery, located next to Old Asbury Church, opened in 1789, while the city’s Presbyterian Church contained a graveyard dating to the 1740s.

A black and white photograph of the front entrance to a cemetery. The brick walls and iron entrance are centered in the photograph. The foreground of the image shows the sidewalk and the paved street in front of the cemetery entrance. Trees are growing out of the curb of the foreground sidewalk and in the far background.
Mikveh Israel Cemetery was established in 1740 by Nathan Levy, forty-two years before Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel opened its own synagogue in 1782. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

During the 1700s and early 1800s, increasing numbers of Jews, Catholics, and people of African descent arrived, bringing with them funeral rites and burial practices. Due to religious and/or racial differences, these groups established their own churches and cemeteries or, if lacking financial means or accessibility, were interred in one of the area’s potter’s fields. In 1740 after the death of his son, Philadelphia merchant Nathan Levy (1704-1753) petitioned proprietary governor Thomas Penn for a private burial site. With his request granted, Levy established Mikveh Israel, the city’s first Jewish cemetery, on Spruce Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Levy himself was interred there in 1753. In 1733, Philadelphia Catholics erected St. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley between Third and Fourth Streets; until 1759, its burial yard was the only Catholic cemetery in the city. In New Jersey, Catholics established churches with adjacent burial grounds in Trenton and Camden between 1801 and 1814.

Due to growing class differences, racial intolerance, and the existence of human bondage, many Philadelphians were interred in the city’s public squares that also functioned as potter’s fields. Southeast Square (renamed Washington Square in 1825) served as a “Strangers Burial Ground” for Catholics, the indebted poor, prisoners, free and enslaved Black persons, soldiers from the Revolutionary War, and victims of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. Northwest Square (later renamed Logan Square) was used as a potter’s field until the late 1830s. For several decades, Philadelphia’s cemeteries would not accept Black interments. In 1810, Mother Bethel AME Church, the nation’s oldest African American church, purchased a plot in present-day Queen Village as a private burial ground, which remained in use until 1864. In 1910, the Philadelphia Department of Recreation turned the dilapidated site into the Weccacoe Playground, and in 2014 hearings were held by the city over concerns about the playground being above a historic cemetery. Of the more than 150 cemeteries created in the region during the colonial period, fewer than twenty survive in the present day.

“Garden” Cemetery Concept Arrives

Following the American Revolution and Philadelphia’s tenure as the national capital (1790-1800), the “rural” or “garden” cemetery concept arrived from Europe. Modeled on Paris’ Père-Lachaise (est. 1804), which was designed to relieve the overcrowding of existing cemeteries, this new design essentially beautified death through picturesque landscapes and ostentatious monuments. As many Western metropolises weathered disease epidemics in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it also was thought that removing the dead beyond the city would prevent the spread of miasmas and plagues of malaria, yellow fever, or cholera. Mt. Auburn Cemetery (est. 1831) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the United States’ first rural cemetery, incorporating Arcadian aesthetics and imposing statuary with notions of privacy and reflection.

Determined to bring such refinement to Philadelphia, in 1836 real estate investor and horticulturalist John Jay Smith (1798-1881) and his partners created Laurel Hill Cemetery. Inspired by Père-Lachaise and Mt. Auburn, Laurel Hill rested in a riverside setting on the city’s northwest edge, was devoid of religious affiliation, and provided the dead and their mourners with privacy and tranquility. Privately hired gardeners and landscape architects maintained the grounds while Smith insisted only lot-holders could ride carriages during weekday hours. Laurel Hill increasingly became a major attraction; more than 30,000 people visited in 1846, and by 1860 the annual total reached 140,000.

Philadelphia’s other premier rural cemetery, the Woodlands, originated in 1734 as a small burial ground and later was moved to Andrew Hamilton’s gardens on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. New Jersey and Delaware also experienced the rural cemetery trend. Trenton’s Riverview Cemetery and Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery opened in 1858 and 1885, respectively, with the former growing out of a Quaker burial yard from the 1730s. In 1872, the first half of Wilmington’s Riverview Cemetery was dedicated, with landscaping by architect Hermann J. Schwarzmann (1846-1891), who designed many of the buildings for Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Smaller towns replicated the rural cemetery in miniature, including grandly arched entrances, mausoleums for the local gentry, and, starting in the 1860s, memorials to the Civil War.

Civil War’s Influence

A black and white illustration of small girls and soldiers in a cemetery placing American flags at each gravestone. The men are dressed in military garb, and there is a crowd of people observing the flag placement.
After the Civil War, celebrations such as Decoration Day (Memorial Day) became more prominent as families visited cemeteries to remember fallen veterans. (Library of Congress)

The Civil War produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. During and after the conflict, the need arose to properly memorialize the dead and commemorate battlefield heroism. The result was the creation of national cemeteries, many of which expanded in later decades. These included Mt. Moriah in southwest Philadelphia, which began as a rural cemetery in 1855; Philadelphia National Cemetery, opened in 1862 in the city’s West Oak Lane neighborhood; Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County, New Jersey, established in 1864; and Finns Point in Salem, New Jersey. While Finns Point was not dedicated until 1875, its first interments included captured Confederate soldiers from Gettysburg.

Following the Civil War, as the region urbanized and increased in population, factories, office buildings, and transit infrastructure obliterated many colonial and antebellum cemeteries. Those that survived often fell prey to neglect or vandalism. Moreover, the process of death became highly professionalized as families adopted cremation practices or hired funeral directors to prepare the deceased and conduct ceremonial rituals. In response, cemeteries increased in size in suburban and rural areas of Greater Philadelphia. Laurel Hill, confined by urban growth, expanded in 1869 to include West Laurel Hill Cemetery on the other side of the Schuylkill River. Wilmington’s Cathedral Cemetery (est. 1876) and Silverbrook Cemetery (est. 1898) appeared on the city’s southwest edge to serve the city’s growing Catholic and Jewish populations. Its Riverview Cemetery expanded in 1916 when the Wilmington Free Library acquired the Presbyterian Church’s grounds for a new building. In 1902, Eden Cemetery opened in Collingdale, Delaware County, becoming the area’s first Black cemetery outside the Philadelphia city limits.

After the turn of the twentieth century, memorial parks heralded a new age of cemetery design. With Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Memorial Park (est. 1917) as inspiration, cemeteries such as Lakeview (est. 1924) in Cinnaminson, New Jersey,  anticipated the patterns of suburbanization that drastically transformed the region. After World War II and with increasing automobile use and suburban sprawl, grounds such as Memorial Park (est. 1954) in Woodbury, New Jersey; Wilmington’s All Saints (1958); and S.S. Peter and Paul (1958) in Springfield, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, mirrored the flight of families, commerce, and institutions from urban centers. Concurrently, many older cemeteries, including Mt. Moriah, Old Camden, and Greenwood/Knights of Pythias in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, suffered from abandonment and vandalism.

A black and white photograph of a man loking at an abandoned vehicle left in a graveyard. The grass is over gown, gravestones are knocked over, and the ground is uneven. There are also other metal parts surrounding the vehicle and scattered around through the background .
Glenwood Cemetery quickly became dilapidated after being abandoned in the 1920s. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Cemeteries also were relocated or removed for urban development projects. In 1953, Temple University acquired the 114-year-old Monument Cemetery. Needing the fifteen-acre parcel for additional parking, Temple requested the site be condemned and, in 1954, more than 20,000 graves, many in wooden coffins, were reinterred in Fox Chase’s Lawnview Memorial Park. In the early 2000s, campaigns sought to save Mt. Moriah and Greenwood. While in 2005 Mt. Moriah was deemed endangered by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, new ownership assumed responsibility for Greenwood and in 2012 spent more than $1 million removing garbage and discarded appliances from the grounds.

Despite periods of geographic expansion, advances in technology, ethnic and religious diversity, and the repurposing of urban spaces, greater Philadelphia’s extinct and surviving cemeteries illustrate the metropolitan area’s centuries of social and economic development.

Stephen Nepa is an urban-environmental historian. He is contributing author to A Greene Country Town (Penn State University Press, due 2015) and The Women of James Bond (Columbia Univ. Press, due 2015), and has written for Environmental History, Buildings and Landscapes, New York History, and other publications. He received his M.A. from the University of Nevada and his Ph.D. from Temple University. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University


Benjamin Franklin Tomb in Christ Church Cemetery

Library Company of Philadelphia

Hundreds of thousands of people annually walk by the brick walls of the Christ Church Cemetery and stop at the iron fence that exposes the cemetery's interior, many of them tossing a penny onto the plain rectangular slab of granite that marks the burial place of Benjamin Franklin — a nod to his famous advice, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Franklin's grave serves as a reminder of his legacy of innovation and his role as a founder of the United States. Franklin's popularity since his death has changed the physical structure of the cemetery and has led to multiple renovations around his grave site. The Christ Church Cemetery was built in 1719 at Fifth and Arch Streets to provide additional two acres of burial space for the growing congregation. Franklin was buried in 1790 in the northwest section of the cemetery next to his wife, Deborah Read, and his child Francis. A request from Franklin's descendants led to the 1858 replacement of a section of brick wall closest to Franklin's grave with the iron bars, which allowed people to observe Franklin's grave at any time. The view from the sidewalk looking into the cemetery, as depicted in this early 1900s postcard, was the only option available while the cemetery was closed to the public between 1977 and 2003. The Christ Church Preservation Trust renovated the cemetery so the public could view the other gravestones that filled the cemetery. The Preservation Trust surrounded Franklin's grave with a row of marble block and installed a wider brick path for visitors to walk on in 2005.

Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church

Library Company of Philadelphia

Churches in Philadelphia in the seventeenth and eighteenth century typically buried their congregation members in land adjacent to the church building. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church Cemetery started in 1677 directly in front of the house of worship, near present-day Christian Street and Columbus Boulevard. The Old Swedes' Church depicted in this 1878 illustration was constructed over a six-year period starting in 1697. The main floor of the church opened for services in 1700, but the bell tower took three more years to construct. This illustration depicts how members of the congregation then, as now, had to walk along a path through the heart of the church's cemetery, passing the remains of previous worshipers.

Mikveh Israel Cemetery

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Nathan Levy founded Philadelphia's first Jewish cemetery, Mikveh Israel (Spruce Street Cemetery), in 1740 at a time when Jewish populations around Philadelphia had to meet in private residences to practice their religion. Before Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel opened its own synagogue in 1782, the members of Mikveh Israel petitioned for this cemetery to bury their family members in accordance with Hebrew traditions. Mikveh Israel Cemetery on Spruce and South Darien Streets expanded only twice, in 1752 and 1765. The only major renovations to the cemetery were in 1803, with the addition of larger brick walls surrounding the cemetery and an iron gate on the Spruce Street entrance, as seen in this 1930 photograph. Since the death of Nathan Levy's child in 1740, over three hundred thirty people have been buried in Mikveh Israel Cemetery. In 1956, the cemetery became part of the Independence National Historical Park and was designated a national historical shrine.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Revolution, Washington Square

Washington Square, before major reconstruction and landscaping in 1825, was an area for animal grazing, public markets, trash dumps, and potter's fields. During the Revolutionary War, thousands of soldiers from the American and British sides were buried in unmarked graves throughout the square, their remains intermixed with those of paupers who could not afford official burials. An archaeological dig to confirm the existence of the Revolutionary War graves occurred in 1956, and the Washington Square Planning Committee took steps to build a memorial on the west side of the square. Designed by architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh and completed in 1957, the memorial, pictured here, features a bronze cast of George Washington overlooking an "eternal" flame to honor the memory of the war's unknowns. The National Park Service took control the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2005. This photo shows the monument in the summer of 2014, when preservationists were undertaking repair and cleaning.

Photo by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Decoration Day at Glenwood Cemetery, 1876

Library of Congress

Glenwood Cemetery, once located near Ridge Avenue and Twenty-Seventh Street, became a place of remembrance and national pride on Decoration Day (Memorial Day) as families visited the graves of their loved ones. Opened as a public cemetery in the early 1850s, Glenwood Cemetery was the burial site of hundreds of veterans who fought in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. After the massive loss of life during the Civil War, Decoration Day became a popular event to honor the memory of those who fought. This illustration of Glenwood Cemetery on Decoration Day in 1876 shows a crowd observing orphaned children placing American flags beside each gravestone.

Glenwood Cemetery, 1929

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Glenwood Cemetery (Ridge Avenue and Twenty-Seventh Street) began as a burial site in 1850, but became dilapidated after the cemetery closed in 1921. Vandals destroyed gravestones and people left unwanted items throughout the cemetery. Efforts to renovate Glenwood Cemetery began in 1927, when the graves of veterans from the Mexican-American War and the Civil War were transferred to Philadelphia National Cemetery. This image from a 1929 evaluation of the cemetery shows the remains of an automobile left in an empty plot. Attempts to rejuvenate the cemetery in the 1930s were not successful, and the owners of the property transferred all the remaining graves to Glenwood Cemetery in Broomall, Pennsylvania. The City of Philadelphia purchased the vacant cemetery in 1939 and the Philadelphia Housing Authority constructed the James Weldon Johnson Homes on the property in the early 1940s.

Walt Whitman's Grave in Harleigh Cemetery

Camden County Historical Society

Before his death, Walt Whitman visited his gravesite multiple times, observing the construction of a granite mausoleum he commissioned in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman, the celebrated writer and poet, moved to Camden with his brother and mother in 1873 after suffering a stroke. Whitman purchased his own house in 1884 on Mickle Street (modern Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) in Camden and continued to write as his health deteriorated.

In the late 1880s, a group of Whitman's friends in Boston raised funds to purchase Whitman a summer cottage. Whitman remained in his Camden house and used the money to commission the mausoleum on a plot he received as a gift in 1885. The granite resting place is pictured here in a 1946 postcard. Whitman's death in March 1892 was followed by a public funeral that brought thousands of guests to his gravesite. In the 1890s, the remains of Whitman's parents and two of his brothers were added to his mausoleum.

The Warner Lot

Laurel Hill Cemetery Company

The Warner lot is an example of the elaborate family or “dynasty” plots that filled Central Laurel Hill in the years after the Civil War. The monument at far right, showing a mysterious woman lifting a sarcophagus lid to release the spirit within, is by Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923), who sculpted the statuary on Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Sadly, the monument was vandalized in the 1970s, and both of the woman’s arms were smashed.) The monuments in the foreground also represent elaborately carved sarcophagi. The smaller graves in the background were moved from a Center City churchyard when the Warner family purchased the Laurel Hill lot.

Richie Ashburn Grave, Gladwyne, Pennsylvania

Within days of the Phillies winning the World Series in 2008, Phillies paraphernalia began appearing at the graves of deceased Phillies fans whose relatives knew they would have appreciated the elusive turn of events. One grave site that drew such attention was that of Richie Ashburn, who played as a center fielder for the Phillies for twelve years starting in 1948 and was part of the "Whiz Kids" Phillies team in 1950 that reached the World Series, but lost against the Yankees. After three seasons on other major league teams, Ashburn came back to the Phillies as an announcer in 1963 and remained a fan favorite until his death in 1997.

He was buried in Gladwyne United Methodist Cemetery, next to his daughter Jan and grandson Christopher. This photo of the headstone is from November 2008. In 2013, the redevelopment of Gladwyne United Methodist Church into condominiums almost forced Ashburn's family to move Ashburn's body. The developers changed the layout of a driveway and parking spaces to limit the impact of the new condominiums on the Gladwyne Cemetery.

Photo by Donald D. Groff for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Dorwart, Jeffrey. Camden County, New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community, 1626-2000. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Hoffecker, Carol E. Wilmington, Delaware: Portrait of an Industrial City, 1830-1910. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1974.

Keels, Thomas H. Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003.

Kohl Sarapin, Janice. Old Burial Grounds of New Jersey: A Guide. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Lurie, Maxine and Marc Mappen, eds. Encyclopedia of New Jersey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

McDannell, Colleen. “The Religious Symbolism of Laurel Hill Cemetery.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111 (July 1987): 275-303.

McNinch, Marjorie G. Wilmington in Vintage Postcards. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2000.

Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

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