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Local Graveyard Keeper Grapples with Genealogy and Ravages of Time

May 3, 2001

By Hoag Levins

GLOUCESTER, N.J. -- Emery Bittmann is amazed by the number of people who chase the dead through his cemetery. He's also a little aggravated. Some tie up his phone line. Others appear in person unannounced, wheeling their cars up to his tiny office to pepper him with questions.

Emery Bittmann
Photo: Hoag Levins.
Cemetery operator Emery Bittmann.
"It's hard to believe how many people are tracking down their ancestors and expect us to drop everything to be their librarians," says the 65-year-old Bittmann, who is the owner, manager and one-man maintenance crew of Cedar Grove Cemetery in this Delaware River town.

A life-long resident, Bittmann acquired the eight-acre property in 1994. Every year since, the number of genealogy enthusiasts seeking information from his office records has increased.

Rich in history
It's not hard to understand why. Cedar Grove, which takes its name from the dense stand of cedar trees that once walled it off from Market Street, is rich in history. Its plots hold the remains of a community that is one of the river valley's oldest.

More than 170 of the graves contain Civil War veterans,
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the highest-ranking being a colonel. There is a section of Lenni-Lenape Indian graves -- the most recent bearing the stone of Ada M. One Star, who died in 1977 at the age of 70.

Elsewhere around the grounds are the ornate obelisks, columns and Victorian wrought iron plot fences of prominent families from an era when Gloucester was a powerhouse of shipbuilding and related maritime and machine trades.

Horse and buggies
Even today, the gently rolling grounds have a feel of earlier times. Laced with narrow roads originally
Emery Bittmann
Photo: Hoag Levins.
Grave of Civil War veteran Richard Greenwood, Company A, 3rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry.
designed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and funeral wagons, the cemetery still has two iron hitching posts at its center.

However, time has not been kind to Cedar Grove. By 1994, it had become host to far more late-night beer-drinking parties than daytime funeral processions. For a while, its rear section served as an impromptu trash dump. Strapped with debt and unable to generate the minimal revenue needed to cover upkeep, the manager gave up and asked the state to close and padlock the site permanently.

But Bittmann, whose family has long had a plot in Cedar Grove, was appalled by the proposal.

A burly man who runs his own company maintaining and repairing box-making machinery, he went to a hearing of the Cemetery Board in Trenton to formally object. He ended up leaving that meeting as Cedar Grove's new volunteer manager.

'Save it for everybody'
"I figured that if I was going to save it for my own family plot I'd have to save it for everybody," said Bittmann.

Shortly after that, he paid off liens against the property
Graveyard records
Photo: Hoag Levins.
The deeds of Cedar Grove are now at the Camden County Historical Society library.
and became its owner.

What he did not anticipate was the impact of the genealogical craze that had taken hold of the Baby Boom generation. After he cleaned out the trash, hacked down the waist-high weeds, chased away the nighttime vandals, rescued a trove of cemetery records from a damp basement and began building a new central interment area for cemetery urn burials, Bittmann's Cedar Grove was a far more hospitable place. Soon, a steady stream of ancestor-seekers began arriving in search of plot deeds and interment documents.

"I understand what they're trying to do and I would like to help people more, but the work load here's just too much," said Bittmann. "I talked with other cemetery owners and found some of the larger ones are charging $25 an hour for records research service."

Historical society
Lacking the time and inclination to be a librarian, even for a fee, Bittmann recently solved his problem by donating Cedar Grove's records to the Camden County Historical Society (CCHS). The organization keeps the originals in the vault at its headquarters in Pomona Hall in Camden and makes copies available to individual researchers in its extensive public library.

"It just made a lot of sense -- now I tell the ancestor-chasers who call and visit to go over to the historical society to get whatever records they want," he said. "It also freed me up to deal with everything else that has to be done here."

And that is no small task. Even though family members and
Sunken grave marker
Photo: Hoag Levins.
Many of the stones from the 1800s have sunken a foot or more into the ground.
friends pitch in to help with the upkeep of the cemetery, the ravages of time always demand more.

Wrestling stone
For instance, Cedar Grove is so old, and its river bottomland topography so dynamic, that Bittmann must battle the geology. Erected on soft, sandy soil, many of the Civil War grave markers have sunken nearly out of sight. The tops of stones that once stood two and a half feet above ground are now barely visible above the grass.

Bittmann is systematically rescuing them. He erects a tripod and a chain-pulley lift, similar to those used to hoist engines from cars. He and his volunteer helpers secure the grave marker in a nylon sling and muscle it upward out of the ground. Once the stone is removed, the hole is filled with trap rock and the stone reset at its normal height. It is backbreaking work, he notes.

"This is really not a business venture but a labor of love," said Bittmann, as he sat on a marble stone beneath a shade tree and wiped his brow. "But there are a lot of veterans buried here and I thought they just deserved better than to be abandoned. Plus, it's very peaceful to work here and I like the sense of service and history I get from it."

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