August 3, 2017

Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery, Slowly Coming Back to Life

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: pwbaker/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Mount Moriah was established in 1855, a product of the "rural cemetery" movement.

Starting in 1855, Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery was a popular final resting place for some of the city’s most elite and moneyed residents. Originally spanning 54 acres, it eventually grew to 380, making it the largest cemetery in the state, a title it still holds today. Its entrance, defined by a Romanesque brownstone arch and gatehouse and designed by Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button, still lends the cemetery an air of grandeur—even though the two structures are now crumbling and covered in vines.

Since 2011, things at Mount Moriah have been decidedly less lively (or deathly). While other Victorian burial grounds in the city, like the nearby Laurel Hill Cemetery (a National Historic Landmark) have enjoyed careful preservation, Mount Moriah has seen increasing neglect in the past few decades, embodied in the overgrown grass, creeping vines, and poison ivy that’s encroaching on the roughly 85,000 graves. Illegal dumping has also been an issue.

The last remaining member of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association—the burial grounds’ governing body since its inception—died in 2004, and Mount Moriah closed its gates for good in 2011. Assignment of the area to a new steward was in legal limbo for three years, until September of 2014, when the Orphans Court of Philadelphia named the Mount Moriah Preservation Corporation as the official receiver of the 380 acres. They’ve been stewarding the cemetery’s historical documents, as well. Since 2011, a group called the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery has been cutting paths through the overgrown vegetation to make the grounds more accessible to explorers and visitors.

photo by: pwbaker/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

The brownstone entryway and gatehouse were designed by Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button.

Mount Moriah exemplifies the “rural cemetery” movement that gained traction in the 19th century, when more traditional churchyard burial grounds began to get too crowded. Advocates wanted more expansive cemeteries to be built near the outskirts of expanding rural population centers. The landscape of Mount Moriah is marked by marble mausoleums, monuments, and obelisks, markers representative of its wealthy clientele. The Naval Plot dates to the Civil War and is still maintained by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The former grave of Betsy Ross, the seamstress who made the first American flag, is located nearby. In 1976, officials decided to move her remains to Philadelphia’s Old City for the city’s bicentennial celebration, and today, the site is marked with a bare flagpole.

The next hurdle for the Friends group and the Preservation Corp. will be raising money for restoration work, and coming up with a long-term strategic plan for how to bring it back to life. They’re also trying to map out the cemetery, cross-referencing with written documents and determining where different individuals are buried.

The Friends group is hopeful that the entry arch and gatehouse can be restored, and that eventually, the entire cemetery can be returned to what it once was: a public green space and inviting place for family members to pay their respects.

In the meantime, while all of this is being hashed out, Mount Moriah remains a beloved spot for urban explorers and graveyard enthusiasts.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


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