Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Toppling Tombstones – Should we follow the Scottish Example?

It was shocking to find such a thing in a cemetery, especially one so close to a playground. Back at the beginning of the summer, I visited Tremont Cemetery in Norristown Pennsylvania, with my friend Karen. She had never been here. It is an odd place (Sandy Street and Tremont Avenue) - off the beaten path, partly cared for, partly not. By current records, it is owned by the First Baptist Church of Norristown; according to the sign out front, the cemetery was established in 1846 and holds the remains of many Civil War soldiers. It’s a smallish place, a few acres- but actually twice as big as it appears at first glance. 

Mowed area of cemetery
Odd thing is that the front part is kept mowed, from the street back a couple hundred feet, and then it becomes woods – woods with tombstones and monuments. Nearby, in the center of the cemetery among the tall weeds, there are no grave markers. This is reputed to be an unmarked, two-acre mass grave used “in the late 1910s and 1920s after an influenza epidemic. There are believed to be 2000 bodies in the two-acre parcel of land,” according to an article in the Times Herald (of Montgomery County).   

Karen walking through center portion of Tremont Cemetery

I took Karen through the woods to see all the headstones amidst the gnarled tree branches, and we came upon something which I swear had not been there last time I visited. Just below the playground in a gully, it was propped up with a heavy tree branch.
Playground with path leading down into wooded section of Tremont Cemetery

This cemetery has evolved to a rather odd form of upkeep, due no doubt to the small Baptist congregation’s lack of funds and parishioners. The front third is kept up – grass mowed, all grave markers standing tall. The middle third, as you walk back further from Sandy Street), is all weeds – four feet tall in the summer. People shoot off fireworks here in the middle of the weeds (I saw the remnants on a prior visit). Rather stupid, since a spark could start quite a forest fire here. Venturing further, we progress into the heavily overgrown back third of the cemetery, sloping down into a gully with large trees interspersed among the headstones. Last time I was here, there was a millstone at the bottom of the gully, but now oddly, it is gone.

Teenagers have made this wooded area their meeting and cavorting place, it would appear. Empty beer cans and girls’ underwear can be seen here and there. Strange place for clandestine meetings, an abandoned cemetery. As a kid, I don’t think I would have been caught dead in such a place. But it continues to surprise me how many people have done such things in their youth. A playground sits at the top of the gully, a teenage couple on the swings on this particular day. After exploring the well-worn path into the depths of the old graveyard, Karen and I reversed our direction and climbed up the path. She was the first to see it – a giant marble slab propped up with a tree branch.

Ed lowers headstone (photo by Karen Schlechter)
Like so many other headstones here in the woods, this one had been lying flat for decades. I can only assume that someone wanted to read the inscription on the side facing the ground, so it had been lifted and propped up. You really couldn’t make out any of the inscription. What shocked me was that the stone was left like this! A trap, essentially, for a child to be hurt by. Did they not see the swing set a hundred feet away? A child would just need to walk down the hill into the woods into this trap – a thousand-pound weight ready to fall like those box traps where the box to catch the rabbit is held up by a stick.

Carrots and rabbit traps

Safety SHOULD be a major concern with regard to ill-kept old cemeteries. In Edinburgh, Scotland, derelict cemeteries have their wobbly old tombstones laid down by local government to prevent such tragedies.

From the Edinburgh Napier News (2009):

According to the council, since a fatal accident here in Edinburgh in 1982, and following a fatal accident in Yorkshire in 2000 involving a six year old child, a policy has been developed by the Council to have any “unsafe” headstones laid flat in case they fall on a child playing there…..

So with is in mind, I went over to the heavy marble headstone (two inches thick, three feet wide and five feet high), held it by the top and kicked away the tree branch. I lowered it toward me, back to its original position, as slowly as I could. Had to let it drop the last foot, it was just too heavy. Karen photographed me doing this (that's also Karen's photograph at the beginning of this blog). What a disaster that would have been had a child been playing around it.

Headstone in safer position

From the recent article "Gravestones laid flat in the Capital," in the newspaper, The Scotsman:
MORE than 8000 headstones in Edinburgh cemeteries have been laid flat by council workers following a major safety programme.

In a report to the executive of the city council, he said: "Memorials which have been tested are placed into three categories - require no further inspection for five years, require to be inspected again after 12 months, [or] are so dangerously unstable that they require to be made safe immediately, by laying them flat.

"Wherever possible, we will endeavour to ensure that all memorials no longer standing will be left correctly positioned with the inscription uppermost."

Recent tombstone accidents in the United States:

Recent proactive measures taken against such accidents in Scotland: