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Pennsylvania's Historic Cemeteries: A Brief History

[The following is a preliminary sketch of a book-length project; tentative publication date: 2005]

Professor Gary Collison St. Paul's (Pine) Cemetery, Adams County, PA
Penn State York
1031 Edgecomb Ave.
York, PA 17403

Frontier and Early Settlement Graveyards, 1681-1780
Graveyards of the Late Colonial and Early National Era, 1750-1840
The Rise of Victorian "Rural" Cemeteries, 1840-1920
Modern Lawn and Garden Cemeteries, 1920-present

Introduction: Cemeteries and Culture

Cemeteries and their gravemarkers are an invaluable, irreplaceable part of our heritage. Genealogists use gravemarkers to trace family roots. In some cases gravemarkers provide the only record of an ancestor's life. But gravemarkers and cemeteries also tell important cultural stories. Forms, designs, materials, wording, and symbols of gravemarkers all change over time, reflecting shifts in cultural perspective, sentiments, and values from one era to the next. Cemeteries themselves have evolved from simple, unplanned burial grounds to park-like spaces.

The following is a simplified sketch of the stages of Pennsylvania cemeteries. Note that there is a lot of overlap between periods. This is partly the result of differing conditions in different locations. In 1776, Philadelphia was a thriving city with nearly 100 years of history behind it, while areas in northern and western Pennsylvania were only then being settled by Europeans. Cultural and economic differences also account for some of the overlap. Crude gravemarkers of the sort erected in the earliest eras of Pennsylvania can sometimes be found, freshly made, in corners of our most modern cemeteries. For further information about any of these topics, the reader is advised to consult the recommended readings.

Further Reading (general):

Jackson, Kenneth T., and Camilo José Vergara. Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989). (An excellent, heavily illustrated overview.)

Frontier and Early Settlement Graveyards, ca.1681-1780

Emmanuel Reformed Cemetery, Freyville, PA

The earliest Pennsylvania cemeteries were merely burial grounds on family or church property. Initially, burial was largely a matter of expedience. Burials were marked by a wooden marker or a crude fieldstone. Early wooden markers have long since decayed, but in many graveyards the crude fieldstones of the frontier period still remind visitors of the struggle to transplant a culture into the wilderness. Some early fieldstones bear the initials of the deceased, or the date of death, or both. In rare instances, more sophisticated gravemarkers began appearing during the first few decades of settlement, either because the settlers imported stones from more developed areas or because some of the settlers were accomplished stonecarvers and quarrymen.

Settlers' graves reveal the efforts of survivors to reproduce the culture from whence they came in the new, strange surroundings. Many of these markers are strikingly beautiful and moving despite, or perhaps because of, their crudeness. The homemade marker put up by an untrained family member or neighbor surely testifies more profoundly to the loss than the gravemarker that a century later was purchased from a monument dealer, or from Sears and Roebuck!

Graveyards of the Colonial and Early National Era, ca.1750-1840

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

By the era of the Revolution, most of Pennsylvania had long been settled. With the development of a quarrying industry and the growing prosperity of many of Pennsylvania's residents, gravemarkers became more sophisticated. Refinement, taste, and fashion began to play an increasing role. Many gravemarkers remained rather modest, by later standards. As time passed, the placement of gravemarkers tended to be increasingly regularized. Most graveyards were placed adjacent to churches. It was a but a short distance from the pew to the grave, and the dying could be comforted by the fact that they would soon be surrounded by their fellow religionists and neighbors. Many churchyard burial grounds were enclosed by fine stone walls or iron fences with elaborate entrance gates.

Muddy Creek Lutheran Cemetery, Lancaster Co., PA

Cemeteries and gravemarkers of this period can be characterized generally as "vernacular," meaning that they reflect regional and ethnic differences. Local sandstone, slate, and limestone furnished the material from which gravemarkers were fashioned during this period. Striking differences among gravemarkers result from the diversity of regional and unassimilated ethnic cultures. During this period most Germans spoke the German language at home and in church.

German-American graveyards, particularly those of the Lutheran and Reformed denominations, are often peppered with fine examples of Germanic-style decorated stones with highly stylized lilies, tulips, suns and moons, compass stars, and trees of life. Early German Catholics added distinctive Catholic iconography.

Some Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of South-Central Pennsylvania also produced ethnically distinctive markers of exceptional interest and sophistication. Many were made by members of the Bigham (Bingham) family of carvers and are some of the earliest examples of sophisticated gravestones west of the Philadelphia region.

St. Paul's (Pine) Cemetery, Adams County, PA

Gravemarkers from later in this period present innumerable testimonials to the gradual assimilation of ethnic and religious groups. By the end of the eighteenth century, German-American markers began appearing with English language inscriptions, or with inscriptions in both German and English. English-language markers became increasingly common in the first half of the nineteenth.

Emanuel Lutheran and Reformed Cemetery, Freysville, PA

Recommended Reading:

Barba, Preston Albert. Pennsylvania German Tombstones: A Study in Folk Art, Pennsylvania German Folklore Society Yearbook, v. 18, 1953 [Allentown, Pa., 1954]. (An outdated work, but still the only extended study, with many illustrations.)

Clark, Edward W. "The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of Identity," in Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture, ed. Richard E. Meyer (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press): 31-60.

Farber, Daniel, and Jessie Lee Farber. "Early Pennsylvania Gravemarkers," Markers V: Journal of the Association for Gravestones Studies (1988): 96-121. (photos.)

Graves, Thomas E. "Pennsylvania German Gravestones: An Introduction," Markers V: Journal of the Association for Gravestones Studies (1988): 60-95.

The Rise of Victorian "Rural" Cemeteries, ca.1840-1920

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

By 1840, the consolidation of national culture is evident in many of Pennsylvania's graveyards. This is a period when railroads and other forces rapidly eroded many regional and ethnic cultures. In Pennsylvania graveyards, early ethnic and religious traditions rapidly gave way to styles popular all over the nation. By 1840, marble had become fashionable and in many areas completely displaced local slate and sandstone as a material for gravemarkers. Imagery also was becoming standardized. Clasped hands, Bibles, hands pointing heavenward or to the Bible, wreathes, and other devices echoed a new symbolic vocabulary popular across the entire nation.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

One especially significant trend was the development of a new type of burial ground, the cemetery. As town, city, and church burial grounds became overcrowded and neglected, large-scale, non-denominational public cemeteries began to take their place. These non-profit cemeteries were modeled on Père-Lachaise in Paris and Mt. Auburn (founded in 1831) just outside of Boston. The first public parks, they were expressions of the Romantic Movement's adoration of nature. Curving roads, ponds and lakes, hills with romantic views, and elaborate ornamental plantings all were part of a plan to provide a pleasing, uplifting setting. Laurel Hill in Philadelphia and Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh are Pennsylvania's main examples, but lesser versions of the type can be found throughout the state.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

Another change that came with the cemetery was the trend among the elite classes toward more extravagant monuments of marble, granite, and bronze. With the industrial revolution generating huge fortunes, and the advent of the income tax far in the future, the wealthy lavished spending on their gravesites as well as their mansions. Large family plots, colossal statuary, and temple-like family mausoleums became common. Gothic, Egyptian, and neo-classical sculpture and architecture became the fashion as the monied classes vied with each other to show off their taste and their fortunes.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

Recommended Reading:

Kidney, Walter C. Allegheny Cemetery: A Romantic Landscape in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, c1990).

Linden-Ward, Blanche. Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989).

Meyer, Richard, and Peggy McDowell. The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994).

Morgan, Keith N. "The Emergence of the American Landscape Professional: John Notman and the Design of Rural Cemeteries," Journal of Garden History (1984), 3: 269-89. (On the designer of Philadelphia's Laurel Hill.)

Sloane, David Charles. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1991). (The best treatment of 19th- and 20th-century developments, using New York State examples.)

Modern Lawn and Garden Cemeteries (1920-present)

Andy's stone: Stony Brook Mennonite, York, PA

The advent of the lawnmower combined with the increasing mobility of Americans brought about the minimalist cemetery, with bronze or granite markers flush to the ground to make mowing quick and simple. Often such cemeteries are divided into separate "garden" areas organized around a single statue of a religious figure. At the high end, these cemeteries include palace-like mausoleums, extravagant statuary, and elaborately landscaped grounds.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

Loathed by lovers of the old cemeteries, impersonal "garden" and "lawn" cemeteries can be extraordinarily profitable to cemetery developers, the most unscrupulous of whom create dummy "non-profit" corporations to pump cash into enormously profitable subsidiary businesses owned by the very same people who direct the "non-profit" organization. Increasingly, large cemeteries are being purchased by funeral industry giants addicted to increasing prices to consumers, to elaborate marketing campaigns, and to inflated profit margins.

Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, PA

Still, much of interest can be found among the almost endless sea of same-size bronze plaques--personalized inscriptions, ceramic photoreproductions, and grave decorations and "grave goods" (personal items left by family and friends), to name a few examples. In recent years there has been a trend toward increased individualization of markers, both upright and flush to the ground.

Recommended Reading:

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited (New York: Knopf, 1998), especially Ch. 7, "The Allied Industries"; Ch. 8, "God's Little Million-Dollar Acre"; and Ch. 9, "Shroudland Revisited," on Forest Lawn Memorial Park of Southern California. (The book is an up-to-date version of Mitford's original muck-raking 1950s bestseller, The American Way of Death. Mitford had just completed the revisions before her death.)

For more information on cemeteries and their preservation, visit:

Association for Gravestone Studies
Saving Graves

design by Marie Strausser
date created: May 3, 2000
last updated September 7, 2001