I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.
So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.
We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.
The Archaeologist recently experienced one of those painful paradoxes.
This is the one where a person is about to depart for a seashore holiday, surrounded by boxes of Indispensable Seashore Stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, beach towels and the seventeen boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese that the offspring are not using as their main nutritional foundation, they’re just emergency rations, honestly …
Ahem. To resume: What would be A Very Frustrating Thing in such circumstances?
A breakthrough on a genealogical brick wall, that’s what. Of all the things to happen when one is about to depart from one’s hometown library haunts and Internet connections!
Alas, we cannot pick and choose the timing of these matters. So a full account of the excitement must wait until I return.
Meanwhile, I have had to content myself with other people’s ancestors. On Block Island, I took the three-mile (round-trip) walk from the ferry slip to the island’s hilltop cemetery — very much worth it for the exercise, the peaceful atmosphere, and the lovely view:
Meanwhile, on the mainland, there have been nice sunsets.
And sea breezes.
But as nice as it is to get away, it will also be very nice to get back home. And get digging.
See you soon.
Here’s an interesting essay from filmmaker Britta Wauer, who has made a documentary about Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery. She wonders aloud, “Who would go to the cinema to watch a cemetery film?” (She needs to read more genealogy blogs!)
Anyway, the Weissensee cemetery is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery that is still in use (after 130 years in existence, too). Wauer’s film In Heaven, Underground aims at explaining its enduring place in Berlin’s history and culture. “I wanted the screen to be filled with people telling stories of the rich lives that were once led in Berlin,” she writes.
But where to find those stories? Wauer sent out tentative queries through a magazine sent to Berlin expatriates, expecting maybe a couple of dozen responses. Within a few weeks she had a couple of hundred, from all over the world.
The trailer for the film imparts a mood that’s beguiling, and oddly uplifting:
In Heaven, Underground (official film site)
Find-A-Grave: Notable Weissensee burials
Spiegel Online: “Renovations Begin at Europe’s Largest Jewish Graveyard” (2009)
I don’t honestly know how long it’s been there, I saw a very nice thing the other day: a searchable database to several cemeteries overseen by the Archdiocese of Newark. Lots of thanks to the email listers from the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, who posted this great link.
Entries include name, burial date and detailed grave location information. Included are:
- Gate of Heaven Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Saint Gertrude Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Holy Sepulchre Cemetery
- Mount Olivet Cemetery and Mausoleum
- Christ the King Cemetery
I haven’t been able to track down any background on how complete this database is. Personally, I hit paydirt searching a surname of interest I have from Jersey City; it turned up several hits on burials from 1914 through 2009.
Poking around with a couple of searches on common surnames like King and Smith, I noticed that most of the hits seemed to be 20th-century, but there were certainly quite a few from the 1880s and 1890s, as well. The earliest entries I saw were from the 1860s, but this was just a quick exploration, so don’t assume that’s the extent of the range.
Hope this helps someone hunting for ancestors in northern New Jersey.
There are shelves and shelves of Civil War histories, and Lord knows there’s no shortage of riveting battle narratives and larger-than-life personalities to write about. But Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and lately Harvard’s president, takes a novel tack by focusing on the inevitable outcome of all that: the unprecedented thousands of war dead.
In This Republic of Suffering: Death And The American Civil War, Faust explains how the Civil War changed our understanding of death and mourning as surely as it changed the generals’ understanding of warfare. “We still live in the world of death the Civil War created,” writes Faust. Measures we take for granted today — the notification of next of kin, registering of graves, armies taking responsibility for soldiers’ decent burials — are really products of the Civil War. The carnage that occurred on an entirely new scale demanded entirely new systems for grappling with it.
In the chapter “Burying,” Faust recounts the evolution of burial procedures on the battlefield, and the rituals, often hastily improvised, that soldiers enacted to provide a sense of ceremony in the absence of clergy and family. “Believing and Doubting” explores the wrenching challenge to faith posed by the ever-mounting tally of losses. A surging interest in spiritualism and an outpouring of tragic popular ballads were two typical signs of the times.
What really spurred lasting change was the massive scale of deaths, and their remoteness from loved ones who desperately wanted a body to bury and a gravesite where they could mourn. Undertakers did a booming business at the battlefields for families who could afford to have bodies located, embalmed and shipped homeward. Thousands more soldiers were buried in common graves, and more than 40 percent of Union dead remained anonymous at war’s end. (The percentage was even higher for Confederate soldiers.)
The inability to account for fallen soldiers seems ridiculous to us today, but it was rather typical for its time — certainly the dead of the Mexican War fared no better. Still, by war’s end, the yearning to name and account for the dead crystallized into a national movement to create official burying grounds for them — the beginnings of the national cemeteries of today.
Books like this are valuable to the family historian, illuminating social assumptions and customs that have faded from memory, and giving us greater understanding of the ways our ancestors grappled with grief during this time of incredible upheaval. If you have a Civil War soldier in your family tree, it’s definitely worth a look.
I sort of pay attention to news from St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, N.Y., mainly because it holds the records for another cemetery in Watervliet where a number of my kin are buried. Just now St. Agnes figures in this particularly haunting news story from the Albany Times-Union.
Even a century later, it has a heartbreaking immediacy: A group of kids having a blast on a late-summer outing one minute, fighting for their lives the next, while onlookers watch helplessly.
The girls were participating in a picnic on the grounds of a Victorian estate in what is now St. Agnes Cemetery, sponsored by the Catholic orphanage in which they lived. A bit of fun with a makeshift raft on a pond ended abruptly when the raft capsized, dumping its four passengers, all non-swimmers, into the water. One girl managed to cling to the raft and survived; her three companions drowned.
And being orphans with nobody to take responsibility for the arrangements, they were buried in an unmarked, pauper’s grave.
Times-Union reporter Paul Grondahl relates that St. Agnes historian Kelly Grimaldi has long been drawn to the tragedy of the orphans and did her homework uncovering many of the details. (She has also been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to locate kin of the drowning victims.)
It now appears that someone else is drawn to the long-ago tragedy — a nameless donor who has paid to have a granite marker placed upon the girls’ resting place.
It’s a terribly sad story, but at least one that ends with an unexpected gesture of caring.