Learning from the Dead: Using Jersey City’s Cemeteries as a Window to History

Photo: Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy

Most of Jersey City’s cemeteries are both steeped in history and filled with reminders of decline and decay — not entirely inappropriate, one might think, since these are places to bury the dead.

“Cemeteries are unique in the built environment,” Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy (JCLC) president John Gomez says. “They speak, in a triple strike, to nature, architecture and the human.”

The cemetery’s role in our community is explored in a new book by historians Richard Veit and Mark Nonestied, New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape. The detailed and lively (no pun intended) book uses the lens of burials to examine cultural, demographic and social change in New Jersey.

Veit and Nonestied are coming to Jersey City next weekend to give a lecture that will precede a bus tour, “The Lost Cemeteries of Hudson County.” The tour, co-sponsored by the JCLC and the Hudson County Genealogical Society (HCGS), will visit Snake Hill Cemetery, Speer Cemetery, Old Bergen Reformed Church Cemetery and the Historic Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery.

JCI recently spoke with Veit, Nonestied, and Gomez about Jersey City’s cemetery history and the tour.

Your book uses the evolution of tombstone and cemetery design as a way to examine the history of our beliefs about how to care for the dead — what led you to take this approach?

Veit: Cemeteries, both artistically and culturally, are sensitive indicators of what is important to cultures and reflect larger cultural trends. Mark and I have been researching and speaking on cemeteries for over a decade. We wrote the book to share what we had learned.

In the book, you say the Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery was home to some of the first hints of “burial reform” — can you explain what kind of reform that was and fill us in on that history?

Nonestied: In the eighteenth century most burial grounds were associated with churches. By the early 1800s these grounds had become overcrowded, containing a haphazardly laid out collection of gravestones. The condition of these burial grounds led to reforms in the way society handled the dead.

The Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery is an example of one of the earliest cemeteries in New Jersey from this period of burial reform. The cemetery was incorporated in 1831 by a group of prominent people who felt that the citizens of Jersey City were, as they wrote in their incorporation papers, “destitute of a suitable and convenient place for the internment of their dead.” They formed a cemetery company “in order to provide a fit and proper burial place.” It was not managed by a church, but consisted of a governing board elected by those who owned plots. The cemetery was laid out in a grid system to promote orderly rows of burials. These design and management characteristics were a contrast to what had been practiced previously.

Ultimately, this period of reform would lead to a new movement in cemetery design known as the Garden Cemetery movement. The Garden Cemetery was all the rage in the nineteenth century and became the most popular style of burial ground. The New York Bay Cemetery is a good local example of this type of cemetery.

What are the most distinct aspects of Jersey City’s cemeteries?

Gomez: Jersey City’s ancient cemeteries are serious works of landscape architecture — each burial ground is a serene open space shadowed and deepened by gargantuan groves of old growth trees, intricate nets of flowering ivy, and moist moss masses. Many contain major architectural monuments — saint-clinging obelisks, boulder-like headstones, mini-Parthenons illuminated by stained glass. The grounds of these rising and falling grounds are dramatically defined by slate-topped footpaths and stepped elevations. Our manicured sports-themed public parks pale in aesthetic comparison.

How does ethnicity, specifically the ethnic history of Jersey City, inform the history of its cemeteries?

Veit: Jersey City’s cemeteries reflect the history and heritage of the city from early Dutch settlers, through the Irish, Italians, and later immigrant groups. Different ethnic groups brought different commemorative traditions to cemeteries, and they are well represented in Jersey City. For instance, the Irish often erected cruciform memorials, and often listed their home county or parish on the marker. The Italians and other southern and eastern-European immigrants employed porcelain memorial photographs of the decased on their markers.

Nonestied: Walking through local cemeteries, one can see markers for English, German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European and later Latino immigrant groups. Holy Name Cemetery is perhaps the quintessential Irish (and later Italian) Catholic Cemetery. One can find an evolution of the various immigrant groups buried in the Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery. The earliest graves from the 1840s and 1850s are for English and German immigrants. Later, in the early 1900s, Eastern European groups utilized the burial ground. By the 1910s and 1920s markers for Italians can be examined. Finally, within the last several decades graves for Latinos are found.

What about the industries related to cemeteries — you mention in the book that Jersey City was a bit of a hub for tombstone carving. Can you tell us more about that?

Nonestied: Tombstone carvers were prevalent in urban areas where a large population could sustain the trade. By the mid-nineteenth century Jersey City and the communities around it were growing in population. In order to meet the need larger cemeteries with more space for burials were established. Tombstone carvers supplied customers with a range of different monument styles.

Initially carvers utilized marble, a soft stone that was easy to carve. This would change however, as granite became increasingly popular by the late 1800s.

Granite changed the way carvers operated because they needed to invest in steam powered tools and equipment in order to work the more durable stone. A number of granite monument works were established in Jersey City and many local cemeteries still contain their handiwork. Some of the monuments are signed by carvers and the signatures can be seen on the base of the stone.

One of Jersey City’s most eccentric carvers was Martin Adams. His shop was located near the entrance of Holy Name Cemetery. He erected his own massive monument in Holy Name in 1916 — 11 years before his death. His memorial reaches 63 feet high and is made from salvaged granite columns from the old Astor House in New York City.

The upcoming event is called “The Lost Cemeteries of Hudson County” — what led to these cemeteries becoming lost/falling out of use, and what is being done to restore them currently?

Veit: Cemeteries get lost as neighborhoods change and families move away and, particularly in urban areas like Jersey City, by running out of space. Once that happens the cemetery organization starts to run out of money, soon maintenance is abandoned, and the rest is history.

Gomez: Many of our oldest cemeteries are gargantuan — the combined New York and Bayview Cemeteries, for example — and require a vast amount of maintenance. This does not come cheaply, I am sure. And when these mammoth burial grounds become filled and plot-less, where is the money source? The care of cemeteries is complicated and requires creative, original approaches, including cemetery boards becoming not-for-profit, a status that would open up the gates to grants and public fundraising.

Something bold has to occur — the grounds have reached their physical threshholds and are bursting at the seams. Poion ivy abounds; headstones have been vandalized, weathered, toppled; crypts have been cracked and desecrated; trees have pushed up graves; pits have formed; grass drowns out the restful diorama. What is management to do?

In the case of the Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery, the for-profit board was eradicated after years of neglect and a new preservation-driven organization was established. This new group, led by Eileen Markenstein and Michelle Egar, has already raised the curatorial bar and placed other cemetery boards on notice. Every single weekend (and some weekdays) this board has rallied the public into cleaning up the Newark Avenue site — pulling decades-old weeds, trimming great growths of ancient trees, manicuring lawn beds. They have demonstrated that a grassroots, citizen-fueled approach just might be the future of cemetery care.

Unless a soild funding source is in place (like the Newark Archdiocese-funded Holy Name Cemetery on West Side Avenue), cemeteries will remain under threat and deemed “lost” to entropy.

Nonestied: I think the best example of this is the work that dedicated individuals are performing at the Jersey City-Harsimus Cemetery and the Speer Cemetery. These groups of people are trying to rescue two important cemeteries from becoming lost.

The Lost Cemeteries of Hudson County lecture and bus tour is scheduled for Saturday, May 9 from 10 am – 2 pm. Monday, May 4 is the last day to register — visit the HCGS website for more details and a registration form.

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.