A VISIT TO CAMDEN'S MOST OVERGROWN GRAVEYARD|
Exploring The Wilderness of Historic Evergreen Cemetery
Hoag Levins ...| ...October 10, 2004
> Photo Feature: Evergreen Cemetery
CAMDEN, N.J. -- What was originally planned as a leisurely genealogical excursion through Camden's historic graveyards last weekend unexpectedly turned into a near-wilderness
experience at the day's longest stop, Evergreen Cemetery.
|Photo: Hoag Levins|
|Much of Evergreen Cemetery is covered in chest-high grasses, making the hunt for grave sites like a wilderness excursion. Click for larger view.|
The Victorian burial ground that sprawls from Ferry Avenue north along Mount Ephraim Avenue in the southeast corner of the city was heavily covered in chest-high grasses.
Currently in bankruptcy, the 85-acre facility has, for several years, been almost totally abandoned to the raw forces of nature.
Left unchecked, it has become an otherworldly landscape resembling nothing so much as a wheat field into which large numbers of ornately carved stone structures have been dumped. In all directions, the upper half of obelisks, stone urns, marble angels and fluted granite columns poked skyward from undulating waves of tufted grass.
Vast sections of lower grave markers across the sprawling cemetery were totally invisible.
Evergreen was the main stop on the Camden County Historical Society's "Day of the Dead" cemetery tour designed to provide a safe, chaperoned bus visit to some of the city's most historically important cemeteries. Twenty-six amateur and professional genealogical researchers took part.
"One goal of our tour was to assist people in identifying, locating and then visiting the graves of their relatives," said Amy Snyder, a Historical Society librarian and cemetery preservation activist. "Another was to acquaint people with the condition of these cemeteries. You really need to visit the places in person to fully appreciate what is happening to them."
Two-day cemeteries event
The two-day event began Saturday, as tour participants gathered at the Historical Society's library to comb through burial records, card files, rug-sized plot maps, microfilmed obituaries and other documents. The extensive death records archive provides a way to exactly pinpoint the
graves of a surprisingly large number of the people who died in Camden over the last two centuries.
|Photo: Hoag Levins|
|Evergreen resembles nothing so much as a wheat field into which large amounts of ornately carved stone has been dumped. Click for larger view.|
Then, on Sunday, day two, the cemetery tourists, armed with photocopied maps and voluminous notes, boarded a bus for an all-day tour of four of Camden's five most historical graveyards -- Old Camden, New Newton Quaker Burial Ground, Evergreen and New Camden.
The first two -- Old Camden and New Newton -- have sustained large-scale destruction of monuments and wholesale removal of marker stones. But they were well mowed and easy for genealogists to investigate.
Hacking and thrashing forward
The third, Evergreen, was a very different story. There, the Historical Society bus unloaded passengers who were immediately confronted by walls of wild overgrowth. There were no paths reaching through the tangle into the sections of graves that stretched to the horizon in either direction. Determined to find the physical sites they had exactly located on maps, many visitors pushed into the prickly foliage, hacking and thrashing forward, like explorers entering uncharted jungle.
"What can you say when you find this level of neglect at such a historically significant site?" asked county historian Paul Schopp, who led the day's tour.
As he spoke, Schopp stood at the central crossroads of Evergreen, watching visitors clutching notebooks and hand tools wander down rutted roads to stare quizzically into tangled barriers of bramble and vine.
"This is the hallowed ground of our ancestors and it ought to be more respected," he said. "These historic cemeteries have great informational value as well as great emotional impact for the people who trace their roots back here. Cemeteries are a very personal and a very public connection to the past. That becomes obvious as you watch family historians, like those on this tour today, experience a rush of joy as well as tears when they confront the grave marker of some long-lost ancestor."
'Cemeteries are educational sites'
"Although many people don't think about it this way," Schopp said, "cemeteries are educational sites: they teach us about the
history of who we are and where we came from. They are very important public resources that deserve some minimal level of care."
|Photo: Hoag Levins|
|Throughout much of the 19th century, Evergreen was Camden's most opulent and prestigious burial ground. An elaborate chapel once stood at its center. This photo is the only one known to exist of that structure. Click for larger view.|
Near his feet, Schopp pointed out a straight run of red brick across the dirt road -- the foundations of an architecturally elaborate chapel that was once the centerpiece of Evergreen Cemetery -- itself once a centerpiece of Camden's community life.
Throughout much of 19th century, he explained, this was Camden's most opulent and prestigious burial ground; the place where the city's wealthiest merchants, most important political leaders, honored Civil War veterans and cultural personalities were laid to rest in solemn pomp by gatherings of men in silk top hats and women with black parasols.
By the late 20th century, however, Evergreen had become a derelict property, minimally maintained by a court-appointed receiver. When he died, the place slipped into its current odd limbo: no one owns it or is officially responsible for its upkeep.
'It is shocking'
"It is shocking that a cemetery this big could just be abandoned by everyone in authority," said Doris Hutchison, an 80-year-old retired RCA technical information systems manager. A resident of Merchantville, she has been tracking down the resting places of her deceased relatives for years through the region's death records archives and cemeteries.
The ancestor most important to her is her great grandfather, Captain John C. Hutchison, who was born in 1828. As a young man, he captained a sailing vessel that went between Philadelphia and Japan. Later, he met a woman in Camden, got married and went to work with the
Delaware River ferry company where he became superintendent. He worked there for 40 years and was buried in Evergreen in 1896.
|Photo: Hoag Levins|
|Doris Hutchison and two friends spent an hour stomping down, hacking away and hand-mowing the area that surrounds the gravestone of her great grandfather. Click for larger view.|
The last time Ms. Hutchison visited his grave was ten years ago. She took the weekend Historical Society bus trip so that she could safely see the site again.
The experience was as exciting as it was appalling, she said. Once marked with a special "Captain" curb marker, the grave used to be easy to spot. But when she arrived on Sunday, the entire section was waist-deep in thickets. She and two friends hacked their way through and stomped down the growth to finally find and unearth the captain's gravestone, which was buried beneath a dense mat of live and rotting vegetation. Ms. Hutchison then spent an hour "mowing" the surrounding area flat with a set of hand clippers.
Baby brother's grave
"My father's parents are just around the corner over there," she said, waving toward the next section up the road. "My baby brother who died at nine months old is close by there. I've used the Historical Society records to identify more than 14 other relatives here in Evergreen. We came here today to find their graves but it's very difficult in these conditions."
Two sections away, Mildred Matthews, 83, of South Hampton Township in Burlington County, and her sister, Grace Stanley, 86, of Westmont, were trying to find the grave of
their aunt. Ms. Matthews, who uses a walker, on occasion flailed the overgrowth with the plastic-tipped legs of the aluminum devise.
|Photo: Hoag Levins|
|Mildred Matthews (with walker), Grace Stanley and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kristen A. Graham survey one of the many sections where grave rows are completely obscured by overgrowth. Click for larger view.|
"We have our aunt located on the map and know she's nine rows up from the road here, and 13 graves in, but you can't count the rows and you can't see the headstones through this mess. We've been wrestling with weeds tall as we are."
Both women are retired RCA workers who grew up in Camden and frequently passed or visited Evergreen as younger women.
Gothic superintendent's building
"As we were riding the bus this morning, I was remembering to my sister how pretty Evergreen's gothic superintendent's building near the entrance was. But when we arrived, the building was torn down. Everything else was weeds."
"This bus trip today has really been great," she said, "but it makes you wonder -- doesn't somebody have a duty to keep grave sites accessible to the public? I mean, think about how many people are interested in genealogy today. The county seems to be able to find millions of dollars to dock a battleship downtown; can't they find just a little bit of money to clean up the cemeteries? There's probably more local people interested in visiting their ancestors than in climbing around some old battleship."