Raising the dead
Residents tour county’s graveyards, including ‘Sopranos’ cemetery
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
May 17, 2009 | 1463 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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Cemeteries throughout Hudson County hold interesting clues to history, but some of them are falling apart.

In order to raise awareness about preserving old graveyards, the Hudson County Genealogical Society and the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy co-hosted “The Lost Cemeteries of Hudson County Tour” last week. They took residents to Speer Cemetery, Harsimus Cemetery (also known as the “Sopranos” cemetery), and the Old Bergen Reformed Church Cemetery in Jersey City, as well as the site of the former Hudson County Cemetery in Laurel Hill in Secaucus. The last site had held the remains of thousands of people who died in the county’s asylum and jail over 200 years.

The tour was preceded by a talk by anthropologists Richard Veit and Mark Nonestied, co-authors of the book “Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye: New Jersey’s Historic Cemeteries and Graveyards Through Four Centuries.”

Written in stone

About 60 participants met at the Secaucus Public Library and Business Resource Center, where Veit and Nonestied presented a slide show of 18th, 19th, and 20th, century gravestones in New Jersey and discussed historic trends in tombstone design.

“You’ll notice the early grave markers of the 18th Century tend to be much simpler than ones that we see later in the 19th Century,” Veit noted. “Early markers are often characterized by the symbol of the hourglass, a skull and crossbones, flames. These symbols reflect the Puritan values of the time.”

Veit showed an image of a tombstone that depicted a woman engulfed in flames – a sign, perhaps, that the dead woman’s relatives didn’t think she was heaven-bound.

Another featured an hourglass that actually had a carved image of sand in the lowers half of the glass.

“I guess to symbolize this person’s time was up,” Veit quipped.

A couple of 1700s era headstones that he showed noted the individuals died in “New Jarsey.” “I love it,” Veit said. “It’s like a New Jersey accent in the 1700s!”

By the mid-1700s, which Veit called a “transitional period” in tombstone design, the austere images of hellfire and skulls and crossbones gave way to softer images of angels, cherubs, and flowers.

“These more uplifting designs reflected the growing belief in the culture that people could be saved,” said Veit.

Religious crosses began to appear on markers, especially on those of Roman Catholic immigrants from Italy, Germany, and Ireland. Headstones eventually evolved into intricate works of art, meticulously chiseled by professional carvers.

“You may be surprised to know that many carvers were not shy about advertising their work right on the front or back of someone’s gravestone,” Veit said. He showed a photo of one tombstone that even had a hand pointing to the carver’s name. “This gentleman was clearly very proud of his work.”

And, yes, master carvers made “typos.” There’s a marker in Woodbridge, N.J., that has a deep gouge in it, apparently because the stone carver had misspelled the dead person’s name. Another image from Veit’s presentation included a headstone that had a line crossing out another error, as if slate were a mere notepad.

When graveyards got spruced up for profit

At the dawn of the 19th Century, burial grounds went from disorganized, unattractive spaces to beautifully landscaped cemeteries, according to Nonestied, who shared the presentation with Veit.

“We went through a period of burial reform to prevent the haphazard graveyards of the past,” he said. “No longer were they solely managed by a church or a synagogue. They were now increasingly managed by businesspeople who established cemeteries as a private enterprise.”

These landscaped cemeteries, also known as garden cemeteries, often had wealthy patrons who gave either money or land to get the business venture started. They are generally characterized by their neatly organized rows of burial plots with lots of open space, grass, and trees, and they were designed to invite contemplation and reflection.

Now that grave markers were surrounded by lots of open space, it’s not surprising that they became more elaborate in their design.

“We go from simple markers to more elaborate designs,’ said Nonestied. “We begin to see obelisks. Mausoleums became popular as family plots became more common and we see fewer single individual graves. Grave markers became and very ornate.”

Interestingly, Nonestied said that many of the detailed carved into grave markers during this period were lifted straight from popular pattern design book of the period. Soon there would be a professionalization of the headstone industry, Nonestied said, as hand carving died out and new tools that used air compressors became more widespread.

The decline of the ‘Sopranos’ Cemetery

Jersey City’s Harsimus Cemetery, which tour participants visited, was one of the first three landscaped cemeteries in the country. The sprawling graveyard was begun in 1829. It’s often called the “Sopranos” cemetery because it was featured in scenes from the HBO series.

However, in 2008, the last surviving Harsimus Cemetery board member died and it was abandoned until a volunteer group stepped in to clean and take care of it. These volunteers now keep the grass trimmed and the cemetery free of garbage.

Landscaped cemeteries like Harsimus gave way to an unforeseen problem. Entrepreneurs increasingly opened private cemeteries that were not affiliated with religious institutions, selling grave plots for a profit. When the cemeteries ran out of land to sell, these cemeteries lacked the financial resources needed for upkeep, and they were abandoned.

Speer Cemetery in Jersey City, which tour participants visited, also fits this profile. Abraham Speer, an undertaker, bought the land for this four-acre cemetery in 1850 from Michael DeMott, whose family owned a large farm. Once a lovely manicured space, it is now overgrown with grass and weeds and is littered with trash.

“This is a problem that most non-religious cemeteries in the state may face,” said Bob Murgittroyd, former president of the Hudson County Historical Society. “One of the things we’re trying accomplish with this tour is we want to show cemeteries in different stages. On one end of the spectrum you have the old Snake Hill Cemetery in Secaucus that’s now exit 15X on the NJ Turnpike. It’s gone. It’s lost for all time. Speer has been abandoned now for almost 100 years. There’s nobody to take care of it and it’s in terrible shape. Finally, [Harsimus Cemetery, also in Jersey City] was recently facing the same problems that Speer has.”

Pauper’s field

The Old Snake Hill Cemetery in Secaucus, once known as Hudson County Cemetery, is, perhaps, the saddest of Hudson County’s historic cemeteries because it no longer exists.
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“There’s rich history in these cemeteries.” – Bob Murgittroyd
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In the 1950s, when the state wanted to extend the Turnpike, thousands of bodies had to be disinterred. The remains of some 4,569 people were removed from this cemetery and were reburied at the Maple Gove Cemetery in Hackensack. It is believed that many graves that weren’t found remain buried under the Turnpike.

Because this area was home to several county institutions – notably a jail, an asylum, and a facility for people with TB – many people who were buried here lived and died at one of these facilities. Although often referred to as a “potters field,” this cemetery didn’t just cater to the institutionalized. Many of the people who were buried here may not have been poor, but simply lacked surviving relatives when they died.

Murgittroyd said, “There’s rich history in these cemeteries. But if we don’t do some proactive things now, they’re just going to wither away, and we’ll lose part of the historical record of the people in this area.”

Seeds of the past

Hudson County cemeteries have unique significance to American history, according to Bob Murgittroyd.

“Hudson County has always been a transient area,” he noted. “Historically, people would come to the area. Their families stay for a little while. Then they would move on. During their brief stay in New Jersey it wasn’t uncommon for a family member to die. Those family members are buried here, even though the rest of the family tree may have eventually settled somewhere else.”

Cemeteries here have another important link to history. Hundreds of war veterans and Hudson County historical figures are buried in some of the cemeteries that are now in a state of neglect. For example, Jane Tuers, who is credited with alerting George Washington to Benedict Arnold’s plot to betray patriot forces at West Point, is buried in the Old Bergen Reformed Church Cemetery in Jersey City.

Cemeteries can be more than roots to our history. According to tour participant and Genealogical Society member Michael Ronayne, they can also be a rich resource for botanists.

“It wasn’t uncommon for people to plant flowers on graves,” Ronayne said during the tour stop in Harsimus Cemetery. “Immigrants, for instance, sometimes planted flowers that reminded them of home. These were often very simple but rugged plant species. As time has gone on, and we’ve cultivated fancier and more elaborate plants, often the only remaining samples of the original plants are in cemeteries.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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