Beneath the dramatic hills and meadows of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia lie the mortal remains of laborers, actors, ministers, gangsters, soldiers, sailors, and onetime titans of industry.
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” vocalist John Whitehead is buried there, as is Civil War-era nurse Mary Brady, often described as Philly’s own Clara Barton. Also resting at Mount Moriah at one time was — or, some argue, still is — Betsy Ross.
And Mount Moriah also is a certified arboretum, where enormous junipers and yews, a 140-year-old hemlock that’s among Pennsylvania’s tallest, and a family of native sassafras trees rises skyward in close formation.
“It’s a green space, it’s history, and it’s the final resting place for Philadelphians, from ordinary individuals who walked the streets of the city, to war heroes,” said Ken Smith, president of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery. “There are a lot of stories out here.”
Since the property was abruptly abandoned by its owners in 2011, hundreds of volunteers have hauled away trash — including cars, furniture, poured concrete, and 3,000 tires — cut brush, righted headstones, and nurtured the beauty of the cemetery’s 200 parklike acres. Mount Moriah is among the largest graveyards in Pennsylvania and extends from Southwest Philly into Yeadon, Delaware County.
“So far we’ve reclaimed about 60% to 70% of the grounds,” said Smith, a financial services executive who lives in West Chester. “We’ve turned it from a liability to an asset for the neighborhood.”
Smith likened the task to assembling “a beautiful, complex puzzle,” a process that involves genealogical, historical, botanical, and even wildlife management concerns. The Friends aim to preserve the past and also provide a sustainable future for a fragile landscape of woodlands and wetlands, divided by Cobbs Creek Parkway and surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods.
Chiseling into a landscape of invasive species
An estimated 180,000 people are buried at Mount Moriah, with tens of thousands of headstones and monuments to care for, including the simple markers for persons unknown and stones that have sunk into the earth. The work gets done mostly by a volunteer corps of Scout troops, clients of reentry programs, members of allied organizations, and people from throughout the region, some with family members buried there.
“Ken and I got our chainsaws out, and a bunch of college kids worked like ants, carting stuff away,” said Bud McCafferty, of Cinnaminson, recalling an early phase of the effort.
McCafferty got involved after learning that neglected graves of Medal of Honor recipients were being identified and restored at Mount Moriah. The cemetery is the resting place of 29 such veterans; there also are 404 Civil War soldiers (including two Confederates) and 2,200 sailors and Marines, at two separate burial grounds maintained by the Veterans Administration.
Mount Moriah also is one of three Philadelphia cemeteries where Drexel University researcher Heather Kostick is studying urban biodiversity. The Philadelphia Parks Alliance is helping pilot a community engagement project centered on determining what ornamental vegetation is best suited for Mount Moriah, which is among 65 cemetery arboreta accredited by the professional organization Arbnet.org.
“When the Friends formed, they literally had to start chiseling their way into an invasive species-riddled landscape,” said Joanna Cosgrove, a horticulturist at Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill cemeteries in Philadelphia.
The chiseling and tree-clearing days are over, for the most part, as the focus shifts toward stewardship.
“In some areas that have been taken back by Mother Nature, we don’t want to go in and take everything out,” Smith said. “We want to keep the tree canopy.”
A Friends board member, Cosgrove was one of about a dozen volunteers who turned out in early April to prepare a family plot for planting with native low-maintenance, deer-resistant vegetation. It’s part of an effort to offer horticulture-themed activities for volunteers seeking “a labor of love” project, she said.
An ecological sanctuary for all
“Besides being a sanctuary for the dead and a sanctuary for the living, Mount Moriah is an ecological sanctuary,” said Kate Benisek, a landscape architecture professor at Temple University. She was one of the volunteers tilling the soil on the plot, which features a central walkway with gardens on each side.
Managing the landscape of Mount Moriah and maintaining the mature trees there can help bolster the city’s tree canopy, Benisek said.
The ongoing inventory of trees and shrubs so far has identified 51 species and includes several Champion Trees of Pennsylvania, a listing documenting size by the Pennsylvania Forestry Association. There’s a 38-foot English yew that’s the sixth tallest in the state and the tallest in Delaware County. Mount Moriah also boasts two tulip poplars listed among the top 20 tallest in the state and county.
“An arboretum is like a museum with a collection of trees,” Arbnet coordinator Sue Paist said from the Morton Arboretum, near Chicago. ”And an arboretum in a cemetery like Mount Moriah is accessible to everybody. No matter who you are, you can enjoy the benefits of it.”
That was not always the case. Smith noted that although people of many faiths, races, and backgrounds are buried in the nondenominational cemetery, in late-19th-century Philadelphia, Mount Moriah officials blocked the burial of a prominent Black businessman.
On Sept. 29, 1875, The Inquirer reported that the funeral cortege of Henry Jones, described as “one of the most noted caterers” in Pennsylvania, was halted near Rittenhouse Square by a messenger who said Mount Moriah would not allow a Black person to be buried there.
The lawyer for Jones’ widow, Margaret, argued that the burial plot had been properly conveyed to the Joneses and that a family member already had been buried there.
Nevertheless, when Mrs. Jones went to Mount Moriah after the procession had been halted, “the officer in charge renewed to this heartbroken woman his refusal to receive the remains of her husband because of his color,” the lawyer, W.H. Browne, wrote in a letter accompanying the newspaper story.
A 2020 story in Hidden City Philadelphia said Mrs. Jones eventually had her husband buried at Lebanon Cemetery in South Philadelphia.
When Mount Moriah was chartered in 1855, it was surrounded by farmland in a remote part of the city and was envisioned as more egalitarian than upscale Philadelphia cemeteries such as Laurel Hill.
It opened at a time when big cemeteries in many American cities were becoming popular destinations for walking and even picnicking. A story in what was then known as the Pennsylvania Inquirer rhapsodized about the new graveyard, especially its trees: “the majestic oak, the graceful chestnut, the waving poplar, the fragrant walnut.”
The esteemed Philadelphia-area architect Stephen Decatur Button, who was responsible for the city’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church, designed Mount Moriah’s grand brownstone gatehouse, part of which still stands.
One of the most elaborate monuments memorializes John McCullough, a once-renowned actor, while others bear names of Philadelphia business leaders such as Louis Bassett, founder of the Philly ice cream company.
“Members of the Bassett family visited last year, and we had an ice cream social, with ice cream sandwiches for 60 people at the graveside,” volunteer Al Wilson said.
Lost relatives and famous people
An amateur genealogist, Wilson heads the organization’s historical committee. He and other members often double as sleuths, assisting families in search of long-lost relatives who post queries on the Friends Facebook page, or helping researchers who show up at the gate on Kingsessing Avenue between 60th and 61st Streets.
A visit several years ago from author Matt Zullo underscored the importance of the otherwise unremarkable grave of Harry Kidder, a vet who died in obscurity at the former Naval Home in Philadelphia in 1963. Kidder was a member of the “On-the-Roof Gang,” renowned in U.S. intelligence circles for breakthroughs in cryptology that benefited American forces during World War II.
“It’s one of my favorite stories,” Wilson said.
Mount Moriah has many more stories to tell. About 650 victims of the 1918 flu pandemic are buried there — the Mutter Museum held a tour, titled ”Spit Spreads Death,” of the grave sites last November — and so is the Philly gangster Micky Duffy, the inspiration for the Mickey Doyle character in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Then there’s Betsy Ross, who rested in a family plot at Mount Moriah for more than a century until her remains were disinterred and moved to the grounds of the house that bears her name in Old City.
Or, rather, only a part of a woman’s shoe and a piece of clavicle bone were found and moved downtown, Smith said.
“Her gravestone is elsewhere,” he said, “but more than likely, some of Betsy’s remains are still in an unmarked grave near the flagpole.”
There’s no doubting the whereabouts of longtime Mount Mariah champion Paulette Rhone, who died in 2019 after eight years leading Friends’ efforts to save the cemetery.
The simple granite headstone over the plot Rhone shares with her husband is close to Mount Mariah’s main entrance on Kingsessing Avenue.
“Paulette was our everything. She was our leader and friend,” Smith said. “The Friends and our volunteers want to make sure Mount Mariah is a positive influence on the community [and] ensure that the movement Paulette created in 2011 does not cease on our watch.”