Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Mount Moriah Cemetery Gatehouse
Mount Moriah Cemetery Gatehouse; image from the Library of Congress.

Mount Moriah Cemetery is the largest cemetery in the city Philadelphia, located at 6201 Kingsessing Ave, Philadelphia, PA.   It has considerable acreage in the adjoining borough of Yeadon, in Delaware County, the two pieces separated by Cobbs Creek.  It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 interments have taken place on its approximately 380 acres.

I always had an interest in Mount Moriah cemetery due in large part to the number of immediate family members and distant relatives buried there.  I also lived next to it for many years, providing me with numerous opportunities to explore, document and photograph the environs.  For many years I compiled news clippings, historic information, and personal recollections of the cemetery.  I plan on sharing these recollections and information on this website for others who have found this cemetery of interest, and for those interested in cemeteries in general.

Eileen Rose Ellingsworth, 1951 - 1980
Eileen Rose Ellingsworth, 1951 – 1980

The cemetery officially opened in 1855 and closed in 2011, after 156 years of operation and many years of neglect.   While large, abandoned cemeteries like Mount Moriah pose a considerable challenge to plot owners, relatives of the deceased, and the municipalities in which they reside, these challenges are not unique.  They highlight the need for better oversight from local and state governments.  As people increasingly utilize alternatives to traditional methods of dealing with death, the financial resources needed to sustain and maintain cemeteries dwindles and the business goes under.  Cemeteries are not just a business, however; they are symbolic of our understanding of, and commitment to, the endeavors of our collective past.  It is imperative that local governments develop effective laws and regulations regarding cemetery development and management so that their long term viability is insured.

Mount Moriah Cemetery incorporated in 1855 and was established by an act of the Pennsylvania legislature.  It was operated under the auspices of the non-sectarian Mount Moriah Cemetery Association. The original cemetery occupied 54 acres in southwest Philadelphia, along Cobbs Creek. It boasted an ornate Romanesque entrance and gatehouse built of brownstone, on Islington Lane, today known as Kingsessing Avenue. Noted Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button (1813-1897) designed this structure.

Mount Moriah Cemetery was among a number of cemeteries established along the “rural ideal” in vogue at that time. Philadelphia was a booming city, and many of its older, smaller urban graveyards, located in city blocks and alongside churches, stood in the way of development. The concept of large pastoral cemeteries originated in Paris, and Laurel Hill Cemetery brought this concept to Philadelphia in 1836, followed closely by Monument Cemetery and in 1840 by the Woodlands Cemetery. A spate of new cemeteries, including Mount Moriah, followed these and put the bucolic rural cemetery within the grasp of much of Philadelphia’s middle class.

Over time, Mount Moriah grew to up to 380 acres, spanning Cobbs Creek into the Borough of Yeadon in neighboring Delaware County. The cemetery’s large size made it the resting place for many Philadelphians, whether famous or ordinary. The scale of the cemetery also enabled churches, institutions and fraternal organizations to establish their own subsections within its bounds. An expansion called North Mount Moriah Cemetery, or Graceland Cemetery, in Yeadon Borough, was later abandoned.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mount Moriah Cemetery held a notable place among Philadelphia’s grand rural cemeteries. Easily accessible by streetcar, it was a popular public destination for remembrance or just a quiet retreat along the hillsides down to Cobbs Creek.

Mount Moriah has had its moments in the historical spotlight. Betsy Ross, Philadelphia’s beloved seamstress of the first American flag, died in 1836, and in 1856 the remains of Ross and her later husband John Claypoole were moved from the Free Quaker Burying Ground in Old Philadelphia to Mount Moriah. In the run-up to Philadelphia’s celebration of the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial, the remains of Ross and Claypoole were to be moved again, this time to the historic Betsy Ross House. Remains were not found at the monument at Mount Moriah, though, and remains found elsewhere in the same lot, believed to be those of Ross and Claypoole, were relocated to the Betsy Ross House, thus creating still-lingering doubts.

In the 1870s, the funeral procession for Henry Jones was turned away at Mount Moriah’s gate. Jones, a caterer who previously had bought a lot in the cemetery, was of African-American descent. On March 6 of the Centennial year 1876, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jones’ right to burial.

In the mid-twentieth century, Mount Moriah Cemetery was one element standing in the way of a proposed Interstate highway I-695 called the Cobbs Creek Expressway, an upgrading of an earlier plan for a four-lane Cobbs Creek Parkway. The Fairmount Park Commission objected to the Expressway plans, and both Philadelphia and Yeadon interests wanted it built on the “other side” of Cobbs Creek from them. Not only was the cemetery in the way, but as a result of earlier road intrusions through cemeteries, its century-old enabling legislation stipulated that “no road or highway could be enforced” through it. The Cobbs Creek Expressway was never constructed.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, Mount Moriah and many other cemeteries of Philadelphia became victims of neglect. Suburban cemeteries replaced them in popularity, and the economics of perpetual care in the face of dwindling new business took its toll, aided by vandalism, dumping and theft. There has been a recent revival of interest in some Philadelphia cemeteries, through cooperative efforts by cemetery managements, “friends” organizations, foundations and volunteers. Sadly, even though Mount Moriah Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark and is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, its fate is still in limbo. Mount Moriah Cemetery was placed on Preservation Pennsylvania’s Most Endangered Historic Properties List in 2004 and on The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Endangered Properties List in 2005.

On April 6, 2011, it was reported by the local news media that the cemetery was officially closed for business. Calls to the cemetery telephone number were greeted with the message “The Mount Moriah Cemetery is now closed for business effective immediately. Mount Moriah Cemetery is no longer accepting any orders. This includes orders for funerals or burials of any kind. No further information is available at this time.”

Sections Within Mount Moriah Cemetery

U.S. Military
Over 5,000 war veterans from the Civil War onward are buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery.  A ten-acre “Naval Asylum Plot” within the cemetery was purchased in 1864 as a burial site for residents of the Naval Asylum, later known as the Naval Home, and remained in use until 1976; this Department of Veterans Affairs Plot holds over 2,000 burials and is maintained by the National Cemetery Administration unit out of the Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County, New Jersey. The Civil War Soldier’s Plot, containing over 400 burials, holds Civil War veterans.

Fraternal Organizations
Organizations known to have plots within Mount Moriah Cemetery include the Masons (Keystone Chapter No. 175), Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and American Mechanics.

Removals From Other Cemeteries To Mount Moriah Cemetery

  • Fourth Presbyterian Church
  • First Baptist Churchyard (1889)
  • Machpelah Cemetery (11th St. & Washington St.) (1895 to Graceland (North Mount Moriah) Cemetery, later abandoned)
  • Ninth Presbyterian Church
  • St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church
  • St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Churchground (3rd St. & Spruce St.) (1855)
  • Trinity Protestant Episcopal Grounds (Catherine St. below 3rd St.)
  • Rose Burying Ground (41st St. & Ludlow St.) (1922)
  • Roxborough Baptist Burying Ground (41st St. & Ludlow St.) (1922)
  • Wharton Street M. E. Church Grounds (4th St. & Wharton St.)

Plot And Interment Records

Plot and interment records are not made readily available today by Mount Moriah Cemetery staff. Fortunately, interment records were gathered and microfilmed earlier and are available today in two places:

Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania
215 S. Broad St., 7th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19107-5325
www.genpa.org

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
www.hsp.org

Both organizations are located in Philadelphia and have visitor or membership fees and limited hours of operation, so call first. Both organizations have records for many Philadelphia-area cemeteries, including three reels of microfilm for Mount Moriah Cemetery burial.

In addition, the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania has a mostly-complete computer database (in Microsoft Access) of Mount Moriah Cemetery interment records available at its facility. It contains over 79,000 individual records. While a few are duplicates and others contains partial and questioned spellings, it is possible to browse the file, and to filter by Section and Lot to see all records for a known lot.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds various other documents concerning the cemetery.  A visit is required to view them.

Paper records are one thing, and on-site gravestones are another. The interment records simply contain names, interment dates, section, lot and grave numbers, and possible any notes. Gravestones can provide birth and death dates or years, and can indicate relationships. Unfortunately, at Mount Moriah Cemetery the presence of gravestones is outweighed by the lack of gravestones. It may be worth a trip, but be prepared for confusion, frustration and disappointment.

This information compiled by John Ellingsworth and R. D. Kerr.

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