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The Cemetery Trail  

Cemetery Dynamics

by: Eric Miller

People have often clustered themselves in neighborhoods according to race, ethnicity or religion, but did you realize that many cemeteries remain divided along these same terms, and in rare instances even by political preferences. This visit on The Cemetery Trail  is about the social fabric that although woven while we are alive, often is taken to the grave.

Surveying a small geographic area in Western Pennsylvania, there is St. John's and St. Mary's Cemeteries that serve Catholics, and Oak Ridge Cemetery serves Protestants. Oak Ridge is adjacent to Eastern Light Cemetery, which custom holds was reserved for African-Americans.

Some groups which never grew to a significant size in a particular area, such as the Chinese or Turks in Altoona were not able to form ethnic neighborhoods. Nor do they represent distinct areas in this regions cemeteries.

Other groups took serious measures to have racially pure cemeteries. The Harmonites, a religious group that founded several towns including Harmony and Economy, had imported Chinese workers to help run a mill. As the Chinese died they were buried in a hilltop cemetery*. In these rural burial areas these undesirable groups were buried in the the least accessible plots of land.

In contrast, within the more formal urban cemeteries such as Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, higher spaces were reserved for the mausoleums of industrialists, and the plots on steep hillsides and in valleys were left for often poor ethnic and racial minorities.

Before 1830, cemeteries were located almost exclusively on church grounds, which quickly reached capacity. The crowding combined with sanitary concerns lead to the establishment of formal burial grounds on the edges of cities. As the industrial revolution progressed, cities like those in Western Pennsylvania grew around the once rural cemeteries. And now they have become an oasis of natural scenery in otherwise gloomy and congested cities.

Please visit with us next month as we make another stop along The Cemetery Trail.

Return to the Cemetery Trail home page

*Local historians point out that when the last of the Chinese workers had died, all of their bodies were removed and "faithfully and religiously transported to far-off China."


Eric Miller writes frequently on urban issues and lives in San Francisco. He is the webmaster of http://home.earthlink.net/~urbancentury and is a partner in the soon to launch New Colonist (newcolonist.com), a web publication for urban residents. His articles have appeared in San Francisco Downtown, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and other publications. He can be reached by e-mail at urbancentury@yahoo.com.



Copyright © 2000 Eric Miller All rights reserved. This information is being posted on this site with permission from the author. (Permission granted 3/15/2000)


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