Image: City Safari: The Sound of gently pitying laughter

Har Jehuda Cemetery is a 27-acre Jewish cemetery on Lansdowne Avenue in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. Julius Moskowitz, a Russian Jew, founded the cemetery in the 1890s as a burial ground for Eastern European Jews. A large portion of Har Jehuda borders the backyards of about fifteen row houses on Bond Avenue, the street where my father and mother began their married life.  

            Har Jehuda had magnificent trees that to my five-year old eyes seemed different than any tree in the neighborhood. They were tall and expertly pruned narrow trees that somehow reminded you of landscapes in Israel. A high wire fence and a small border wall with a pathway on top of it marked the border of the cemetery facing our back yard.  Children often walked along the top of the wall because it afforded a good glimpse into the heart of Har Jehuda.

            During one walk along the wall I spotted an old woman kneeling by a tombstone. Her face was close to the earth, there was a black scarf on her head and she was weeping copious tears. Curious, I studied her for a moment then walked away so as not to be noticed but when I returned a few minutes later, she was still sobbing. Not being able to feel or relate to that kind of pain at age 5, I still felt a nagging, mild distress inside.    

            The image of that old woman kneeling by a tombstone has stayed with me all my life. In some ways it has come to symbolize the impermanence of life.  

            When my family moved to the farmlands of Frazer, Chester County, there was another cemetery near our house.   

            Philadelphia Memorial Park on Phoenixville Pike is a bronze flat marker cemetery although there is a small, older section of upright markers, some with pictures of the deceased attached to the tombstones. This upright marker section is no longer used and most, if not all, of the tombstone pictures have disappeared. The ten acre non-sectarian cemetery has a massive bell tower that rang out hymns at various times during the day. The hymns would resound throughout the area with great power, although a  neighbor of ours complained about the music, calling it a religious infringement on his rights as a non-believer. He would often complain to me when I went to his house (I was the neighborhood paperboy) to collect the weekly subscription fee.

            “That tower has to go!” he’d grumble, as if I had anything to do with the programmed generic songs that didn’t quite strike me as hymn-like at all. 

      Philadelphia Memorial Park, founded in 1929, became the repository of hundreds of bodies in April of 1951 when the American Mechanics Cemetery at 22nd and Diamond Street in Philadelphia, was uprooted by the Philadelphia Housing Authority for the construction of a housing project.  

            In her 2012 Blog, ‘A Journey into the Past, Patricia Marie writes:

            “When Mechanics was opened between 1848 and 1849, the location at 22nd and Diamond Street was considered a rural area. After the Civil War, industry and housing took over and when the city wanted to build housing projects, it was cheap and easy to take over old cemeteries. Headstones were disposed of and bodies removed to mass graves in other cemeteries and then it was discovered that all bodies were not removed but built upon. If a lot owner had the money to move their loved ones, then they could do so. Most people did not have the money, therefore, their loved ones were removed by the city and placed elsewhere in mass graves.” 

Not far from Philadelphia Memorial Park was Haym Salomon Memorial

Park, a Jewish Cemetery opened in 1883. Singer Jim Croce, who grew up in the Bywood and Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby, is buried here. Croce died in a plane crash on September 20, 1973, after performing at Northwestern State University.

            Philadelphia Memorial Park was a great place to ride your bicycle or take a long walk. In the spring, the cemetery became alive with the scent of flowers and freshly mowed grass. There, among the hills and fields of Chester County, the cemetery was a good place to observe the occasional circling hawk or the low flying pheasant.

            In the wintertime with the grounds blanketed in snow, Philadelphia Memorial Park became the perfect solitary escape, made for personal reflection -–as well as a “sanity safe space” when you wanted to get away from the mayhem of a large family.

      Graves were dug around-the-clock in Memorial Park. The sight of small “digging” tractors and gravediggers carrying shovels put you on notice that your life was not forever. Even more disturbing was the sight of a fresh grave with mounds of soft earth coming to a slight peak topped with colorful wreaths with the name of the deceased on gold or silver ribbons.

           Dear Dana, Forever Loved

          Little Gregory, Always in Our Hearts

          Precious Aunt, You will Always be Remembered

            Philadelphia Memorial Park was also very much about the living. I learned how to ride a bicycle (no hands!) there. Later, there were driving lessons with my mother or father beside me at the wheel. The Park was also an infamous necking and smooching nook (on summer evenings, the action accelerated considerably). With friends during hikes we would try not to walk over fresh graves but approximate where the interred coffin was underground and then walk around it. When we didn’t get this right and inadvertently stepped on someone, we would mumble a cursory, “I’m sorry.”  

            Visiting this place of death was not depressing but often had the opposite effect of making us more hung go for life.

            A good friend of the family’s who died at age 20 in 1972, is buried in Memorial Park. James H. Dye, Jr., was a rare specimen of a human being, articulate and intelligent well beyond his years.  During the Presidential Election of 1964, Jimmy and I engaged in boyish political debates. I’d lampoon him for the Barry Goldwater stickers he put all over his bicycle while he would shake his head in mock disgust at my support for Lyndon B. Johnson, the president who would show his gall bladder operation scars to reporters and photographers just one year later.

            As a boy I was often brought to the family’s burial plot at Westminster Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

      Westminster Cemetery was founded by the Danish Catholic Church in the mid-1860s but reopened as a non-denominational cemetery in 1894.  The family tombstone was purchased by my great grandfather, William Bartholomew; it is centrally located in the so called Catholic section. An older family plot can be found in Saint Mary the Assumption Cemetery in Roxborough. It’s a small churchyard cemetery that holds the remains of my great, great grandparents, John and Catherine Schnitzius Nickels, both born in Germany around 1830.

My great aunt was always taking me to Westminster when she wanted to see if the gravesite was in good order. Was the grass cut?  Were the weeds pulled? Had too many birds defecated on the tombstone?

            She’d bring me to Westminster and talk about our long buried relatives, and she’d also show me-- for the one hundredth time-- how her name was already chiseled into the tombstone with a birth date and a black space for the year when she would die.

            The blank space, of course, always made her death all the more certain. (One can always fantasize that they will be the first to beat the Reaper). She had her name engraved, I suppose, to make sure that when she died her name would be listed just the way she wanted it to be listed. Survivors don’t often get things right when it comes to death and funerals. My great aunt was a meticulous dresser but when she died at age 97 she was buried in a multicolored housecoat, garish beyond belief, something she never would have worn in life.  

            It’s to my great aunt that I owe my fascination for history and tradition, as well as my fondness for cantaloupe, sliced fresh oranges and liverwurst and onion sandwiches on whole wheat bread, layered with the brownest of mustards, of course.   

            In his poem, ‘My Grandmother’s Love Letters,’ the poet Hart Crane writes:

 

             Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand

             Through much of what she would not understand;

             And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof

             With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

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