Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery

The world is strewn with cemeteries more or less forgotten, and while in Jersey City in New Jersey (after visiting the abandoned train station and discovering the site of the Black Tom Explosion), my adventurous friend Hannah and I walked to one of them. (If you are keeping track, this is a lot of walking for one afternoon. We estimated 8 to 10 miles.)

The Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery is a small burial ground at around six acres, with a healthy population of woodchucks burrowing around the graves (really!) almost beneath the rumble of a highway. It gets its curious name of Harsimus from a nearby neighborhood, which derived it from a Lenape phrase meaning something like “Crow’s Marsh.”

The cemetery was established in 1829, the inaugural cemetery for the first cemetery company to start up in New Jersey (this was the time on the cusp of the rural cemetery movement and privatization of burials away from churchyards). Like the other cemeteries established in the mid-19th century, it was laid out to be a garden as well as a place for interments. Unfortunately, it was abandoned in 2008, although luckily a group of volunteers, the Friends of the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery, have now dedicated themselves to its upkeep. (There’s also a caretaker who lives in the house you see above.) Still, it’s far from its former garden cemetery glory, but there is a beauty in its decay.

The most interesting area of the cemetery is this sort of secluded area nestled between two forested areas. The woodchucks love it, too, and you have to watch your step or risk twisting an ankle in one of their burrows.

See! Hopefully they aren’t stealing flags off military graves like those rascally woodchucks in upstate New York.

That flag looks unstolen, at least.

Here is some documentation of me exploring and being careful for woodchuck burrows, care of Hannah’s camera.

Apparently Charles F. Durant, the first American to go up in a hot air balloon and the man who brought the silk worm to the US, is buried in the cemetery, but I didn’t see him. Many of the graves are overgrown or toppled, and others lean precariously. However, you can still detect the waves of immigration from the names, with old Dutch and English graves transitioning to Italian, German, Polish, and Russian. Immigrants to Ellis Island would often come directly to New Jersey to travel by train to the rest of the United States or even stay, so it’s not surprising to see such a diversity of surnames. There are also many Civil War soldiers, and even, oddly, some military relics that turn up, as it was used as a training ground for World War I and II.

At one point, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery was so popular with visitors that tickets were charged for entry to stroll the grounds and appreciate the monuments, but now traffic is light. The cemetery friends do seem to be making an effort though to get people in with concerts and other events, which I think is great. That’s really the only way for cemeteries to survive total neglect is to get them to become a place for the living as well as the dead to appreciate the history contained in their grounds.

It looks like someone has also tried some decorating.

If you find yourself in Jersey City, stop in and check it out, there really is an amazing collection of graves here, each with stories that I’m sure are waiting to be uncovered. There is a guard you might find at the entrance, this cat with a rather furrowed brow who watched us suspiciously, but it was probably just looking out for the place. Someone has to. (Good thing it has a bit of help, too.)

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