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The Eerie History of Pennsylvania's Mount Moriah Cemetery

A grown-over cemetery strikes a strange sight.

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  • Photo Credit: John Donges / Flickr (CC)

Different concepts may come to mind when we think of cemeteries. A place of rest for the dearly departed. Silly childhood games that involve holding your breath when you pass one during a road trip. The setting for horror movies and spooky ghost stories.

Not found among those various ideas is the following adjective: abandoned. But that’s the best way to describe Pennsylvania’s Mount Moriah cemetery.

A Stately Beginning

Located in Southwest Philadelphia, Mount Moriah first opened in 1855. It originally covered 54 acres of rural farmland but according to some estimates, eventually grew to nearly 400 acres. Given its sheer size, the cemetery was, and still is, the largest burial site in Pennsylvania.

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During its early years, Mount Moriah was considered a major landmark. Careful landscaping greeted visitors with scenic drives and rolling hills. Architect Stephen Decatur Button, who was responsible for many buildings across Philadelphia and New Jersey, designed the Roman-styled gatehouse and entrance. Its mausoleums and monuments followed the gothic style.

Compared to other rural cemeteries at the time, the cemetery was easily accessible. Families could visit by horse-drawn carriage. Caskets were brought to burial sites via streetcar. In addition to proximity, Mount Moriah maintained a more diverse clientele. It allowed the burials of African Americans, Jews, and Muslims—although not without challenge on the part of white lot-owners and cemetery workers.

Mount Moriah catered to more than just residents of the surrounding area. In 1864, the federal government purchased two separate parcels of lands within cemetery grounds. These sections would soon be called the Soldiers’ Lot and the Naval Plot. The reason stems from Philadelphia's role in military history.

During the Civil War, Philadelphia served as a crucial hub for supplies and troops. As a result, wounded soldiers were treated in military hospitals found throughout the city. The Soldiers’ Lot interred soldiers who served in the Union Army. It also originally contained the graves of Confederate soldiers, but the majority of these were transferred to the Philadelphia National Cemetery a couple decades later.

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  • Photo Credit: John Donges / Flickr (CC)

Along similar lines, the Naval Plot was opened to house remains that were originally buried at Philadelphia’s U.S. Naval Home. The Naval Home was established as a hospital and residential care facility for disabled and destitute sailors. After the Naval Plot was opened, over 300 sailors were moved from the Naval Home and reinterred in the new location. Today, the Naval Plot serves as the final resting place for over 2,400 U.S. Naval officers and seamen.

Due to the Soldiers’ Lot and Naval Plot status as federal property, they are maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Unfortunately, while the military burial sites are maintained to this day, the same cannot be said for the surrounding cemetery.

The Cemetery Falls into Decline

The last known member of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association died in 2004. Since no known living owner remained, the cemetery would close its gates seven years later. With no one to continue upkeep, the cemetery went into decline.

In many ways, the impressive size of the cemetery grounds contributed to its current state. Ground maintenance for the nearly 400 acreage requires significant funds and manpower to keep the cemetery in presentable shape. But without either in place, encroaching forest and overgrown grass soon swallowed headstones, mausoleums, and monuments. Even the once-grand entrance now lays in ruins.

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Given its status as an abandoned cemetery, Mount Moriah became associated with less than reputable behavior. People used the grounds as a dumping site for trash and construction debris. The cemetery became a convenient location for criminal activity like drug dealing and prostitution. A getaway car was once even left there after a shooting. If no one was there to maintain the grounds, there was certainly no one to patrol it. A sad ending for a cemetery that once housed the remains of Betsy Ross, legendarily the first maker of the American flag.

A New Lease on Life

Even though Mount Moriah’s glory days are long in the past, many people wish to restore it to greatness. A local non-profit organization called the Friends of Mount Moriah dedicates their time to clearing weeds and creating pathways throughout the cemetery. To combat the persistent dumping of construction debris and litter, members even began placing signs around grounds warning people that they’d be haunted by the interred if they persisted in their disrespectful behavior.

While cemeteries are often linked to hauntings, the signs were meant more tongue-in-cheek. In fact, very few ghost sightings are associated with Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery although vague references to clean-up volunteers experiencing the paranormal can be found on the internet. But with only scant details to go by, it’s up for debate as to whether these reports are true or merely an extension of the plot to drive away loiterers.

mount moriah cemetery
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  • Photo Credit: John Donges / Flickr (CC)

In addition to the Friends of Mount Moriah, the 7-member Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation (MMPC) formed in 2012 to create a redevelopment plan for the site. The efforts proved fruitful. A couple years later, the Orphans Court of Philadelphia granted the MMPC the power to manage the cemetery.

In the years since, much progress has been made to revitalize Mount Moriah. In addition to the maintenance efforts spearheaded by the Friends of Mount Moriah, the two groups have established plans to rebuild the entire cemetery and cement its historical importance. These include adding the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places, stabilizing the crumbling gatehouse, and securing its new status as a nature sanctuary. Because while the organizations believe in making the many mausoleums, monuments, and burial plots accessible to visitors once again, they also recognize that the wilderness that’s reclaimed it has become part of Mount Moriah's modern-day allure.

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While efforts to clean up the cemetery continue, gone are the days when volunteers worked hard to drive away criminals and opportunists. Over half of the property is now safe to traverse, although visitors need to take care if they choose to drive. Some areas within Mount Moriah remain accessible only to pedestrians.

And many pedestrians do visit. Nature enthusiasts, joggers, and birdwatchers visit the historic cemetery to take in the scenic views. It may not be quite the same as Mount Moriah's glory days during the 19th century, but perhaps something new—and equally spectacular—can be rebuilt today.

Featured photo: John Donges / Flickr (CC)