Monday, May 27, 2013

Forgotten on Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, I cannot help but think about the trademarked slogan of the Wounded Warrior Project (see link at end), “The greatest casualty is being forgotten,” and how the phrase is so descriptive of Graceland Cemetery.

Entrance to Graceland Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania

Graceland, that full city block-sized, um, field in Yeadon, Pennsylvania supposedly has thousands of United States veterans of many wars buried beneath its grass. The place looks like one of those memorial parks with the flush-to-the-ground grave markers – except there very few grave markers of any kind. On this Memorial Day in 2013, the bare flag poles behind the entrance sign stare at you in mute witness to what had been and what might have been. Honestly, if it were not for the oddly striking white marble monuments scattered here and there across the field, you would think it was just a park.

There’s a community athletic field alongside Graceland Cemetery, and housing on the other two sides. An industrial company sits near the entrance to the grounds, at Ruskin Lane and Bailey Road (Map). The cemetery is off the beaten path, a few blocks from the center of town. Yeadon, by the way, is a small town in Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia on Philly’s southwest side. I used to live nearby, and I never knew the cemetery was there.

Graceland, which was established in 1774, has been referred to as North Mount Moriah Cemetery since around 1895. This was due mainly to its geographic proximity to the much larger Mount Moriah Cemetery (established in 1855), which is about a half mile away. Graceland was not, and is not part of Mount Moriah Cemetery. It has, however, been known by other names, e.g. Buren Hill Cemetery and Sylvan Memorial Park.

Civil War headstone lying in Graceland Cemetery
The sign at the entrance to “Graceland Memorial Burial Ground” (as it is called on the Delaware County History website) says that 1600 Civil War veterans are buried here. So why no fanfare? Why the bare flagpoles? Did they move the bodies as some websites indicate? My question is this: if all the bodies were removed, why is it still called a ‘cemetery” on the sign?

Some burial records exist, but not all. As the entrance sign indicates, Graceland is home to an “unknown number of civilian burials.” On the Delaware County History website, a few hundred names are listed. Among them, eleven veterans. If the records exist, the federal government can be petitioned to have new grave markers made to be placed on these veterans’ graves. If worn stones exist, they will be replaced for free. Why the town of Yeadon has not requisitioned the federal government for new stones for the veterans’ graves is beyond me. According to these records, the locations of eleven veterans’ graves are known, based on a 1936 survey of the remaining headstones. 

This 1938 account of the burial situation indicates that the body count of veteran “soldiers” is closer to 5600. It goes on to state “Many of the old stones have been damaged and carried away and broken by the boys who frequent the cemetery as a play-field. Others have been used to form a wall at the rear of the cemetery. I should judge about fifty of the old fashioned marble, three inches thick type, made up the wall.” According to court documents, the Borough of Yeadon condemned the cemetery in 1964 because it was a “public nuisance.” It was closed to future burials and most of the head stones were removed. I assume the handful of large marble and granite monuments still on the grounds were left there simply because they were too large to move.

One of a handful of lone monuments left in Graceland Cemetery
I cannot help but wonder if one of the reasons for building the athletic field - Kerr Field - next door (a basketball game was in progress during my visit), was to discourage continued use of the graveyard as a playing field. At least the sacredness of the ground has is being observed – there appears to be no ball-playing of any kind in Graceland. Even though there are no gates or fencing, the locals obviously avoid walking through the cemetery to reach the basketball courts. There are also no paths worn in the grass. Signs warn of a $300 fine for dumping.

On my first journey out to this place where the journey of so many others ended, I instinctively began walking toward the distant corner of the cemetery field, toward a lone eight-foot marble obelisk. Too preoccupied with the surrounding rowhomes (and their quaint graffiti), I hadn’t noticed the stubs of white marble sticking out of the grass here, there, everywhere. You can see that the grounds were at one time densely populated with headstones and other grave markers. White marble nubs, headstone bases, and an occasional section marker are scattered all over the field, flush with the ground. The stones that stick up more than an inch have been clipped and worn by the blades of riding mowers. The grass is cut routinely here, I assume by the town. At least this form of respect continues to be afforded the dead.  

Graceland is supposedly the home of reinterred bodies from various condemned cemeteries in Philadelphia (Macpelah in South Philly and Hanover Cemetery in Kensington, to name two). By 1938, Graceland still had an owner, but the property was not taken care of. Headstones were stolen and smashed. “By the time Yeadon took over the care of the cemetery, many of the stones had already been stolen or broken throughout years of neglect and were piled to the side or were decorating neighborhood gardens.

Lone monument on the edge of Graceland Cemetery
According to this reference, the town of Yeadon cleared the derelict cemetery in the 1960, dumped all the headstones somewhere, and [maybe] moved the bodies to Rockledge. Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of northeast Philadelphia had reportedly been the recipient of various cemetery reinterments, with mass graves being the burial method of choice. So much for a "blissful immortality." 

Whether there are 5600 veterans buried at Graceland, or even 1600, or just eleven, can we at least mark the eleven known graves of our war veterans? Flush-to-the-ground memorial plaques would not impede the grass-cutting. 

Naval Plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia
So on this Memorial Day, 2013 – one hundred and fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg – the lives of so many veterans have been forgotten. These were not unknown soldiers – the grave markers were originally there – we just, as a people, allowed them and their memory to be destroyed. Ironic that the original purpose of Memorial Day was to commemorate the lives of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. It was originally known as Decoration Day, a day on which veterans’ graves would be decorated with flowers. The veterans’ graves in this particular cemetery will not be decorated as long as the locations of the graves remain unmarked. This disrespect to the veterans rests with us as the nation that created this memorial cemetery in the first place.

References and Acknowledgements:
Wounded Warrior Project
Thanks to Robert Hobdell for historical information.