Podcast Episode 27: Urban Cemetery Research with Mount Moriah Cemetery

Discover the challenges of urban cemetery research for genealogists and learn how to find your ancestors buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery with tips from the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery organization.

Podcast Episode 27: Urban Cemetery Research with Mount Moriah Cemetery

Urban cemetery research has it challenges: burial plots built over, relocated, or just plain lost to time. Pennsylvania’s largest cemetery, Mount Moriah in Philadelphia, has the unique challenge of also battling nature. Listen in and learn how to find those ancestors (and have an Indiana Jones like experience)!

In this episode, Denys Allen interviews Jenn O’Donnell of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, FOMMCI.  Jenn shares the work of FOMMCI, tips on making record requests of your ancestors there, and how to connect with the Friends organization and participate in the ongoing restoration.

Watch on YouTube


00:00 Intro

03:12 History of Mount Moriah Cemetery

07:17 Who is buried at Mount Moriah

12:30 Visiting the cemetery

15:15 How to make research requests

18:37 Adventures in family history & wrap-up

To learn more about genealogy research in cemeteries, check out these podcast episodes and blog posts:

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Many of us had ancestors who lived in the cities of Pennsylvania and participated in that huge growth of industry and manufacturing from the 1850s, all the way up until the 1950s and living in a city during that time period, especially in the 19th century was a dangerous proposition. Living conditions were tight.

[00:00:25] Sanitation wasn't fantastic at all. It was really lacking. Of course there were epidemics of diseases, things that aren't even around now that now we took care of through vaccination and antibiotics. , and of course the working conditions were harsh and people literally work themselves to death. So those ancestors who flooded those cities for working opportunities, And died. There are sometimes some of the hardest people to locate for us.

[00:00:55] Finding these burial places is a challenge because cities , paved over the cemeteries in some circumstances, uh, relocated the burial plots and buried them in mass graves and new locations. And of course we have record loss because we always lose records the further back that we go.


[00:01:30] In today's episode of your Pennsylvania ancestors I interviewed Jen O'Donnell from Mount Moriah cemetery.

[00:01:38] The Friends of Mount Moriah cemetery have been engaged in an ongoing effort to restore and recover what's there at that cemetery. It's one of the largest cemeteries probably in the United States. Definitely in Pennsylvania, 200,000 people are buried there, which means that there's millions of us descended from the residents of Mount Moriah cemetery.

[00:02:02] Anyway, Jen tells us. You know, tips on finding our ancestors there, what she needs in a research request to make it a successful request. , also , what it's like to restore a cemetery like this , and I hope that you get some , reassurance that we're taking care of your ancestors here in Pennsylvania, and some excitement about hopefully visiting us.

[00:02:25] Uh, in a COVID safe way, a Corona virus safe way , during the strange times that we live in right now.

[00:02:32] And now here's Jen O'Donald to share the amazing work of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery.


[00:02:44] Denys Allen: Jen, O'Donnell welcome to the podcast. I am excited to interview you because you are , one of my favorite places in Philadelphia. I, I think one of those places within the city of Philadelphia, that surprises people, that it's, it is in the city and also obviously in Delaware County.

[00:03:02] if you could tell people. Like who you are at Mount Moriah and what your role is there. And a little bit about Mount Moriah cemetery. .

[00:03:12] Jenn O'Donnell: Sure. , so my name is Jen O'Donnell. I'm the board secretary of the friends of Mount Moriah. And I've been a volunteer since around 2012. Mount Mariah was established in 1855 as part of the rural cemetery movement.

[00:03:29] So few handful of years after Laurel Hill, and other cemeteries in the area, and it was operated by the Mount Moriah cemetery association until around April of 2011, when the cemetery was abandoned. it's my understanding that in April of 2011, whoever was running the cemetery just locked the Gates one day and didn't come back.

[00:03:56] The last known living member of the board of that, cemetery association that owned the property died in, I think around 2004. So it's not entirely clear who was running the cemetery from. 2004 to 2011. there had been some attempts at friends groups, I believe before that time. as the property, declined, became overgrown, filled with trash and, construction refuse and things like that.

[00:04:31] And then after the cemetery was abandoned, a new friends group formed. and began working to, for store as much of the cemetery as possible. The current situation with the ownership of the cemetery is that in 2014, I believe it was, the orphans court of Philadelphia established a receivership for the property.

[00:04:58] And gave that receivership to the Mount Moriah cemetery preservation corporation, which is a different group than the friends group. And, that receivership allows the volunteers to be onsite working, to restore the cemetery and to date with a restorative about 55%. When I say restore, am really referring to, Mowing the grass and clearing out sections that are filled with, Trees invasive species, like not weed vines, that sort of thing.

[00:05:33] Some of the sections are completely impenetrable. So we've been working to clear them, almost inch by inch. A lot of it has to be done by hand because of the headstones and the monuments. And then once we've cleared it to a point where we can actually mow the grass, then we try and maintain it. so that's where the friends group has been for the last, I guess, almost 10 years

[00:05:56] Denys Allen: and Mount Moriah.

[00:05:57] Is it correct me if I'm wrong, the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania?

[00:06:03] Jenn O'Donnell: It's huge. Yeah. We believe it's the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania. It's at least 200 acres. And it's definitely unique because it's in two different counties. It's in both Philadelphia County in the city and it's Yeadon in Delaware County, spanning in both sides of Cobs Creek Parkway.

[00:06:22] Denys Allen: I was there for a photography event and we walked from the entrance, over to the Delaware side and I believe it took us a good 20 minutes. It was not a quick, it's huge, you know, and we saw deer and we saw, bunny rabbits. It is, A cemetery, but it also acts as sort of like a nature preserve, I think, for the city.

[00:06:48] Jenn O'Donnell: Yeah, absolutely. We're the cemetery a couple of years ago was actually designated a level one Arboretum, and we do have, a lot of deer, birds of prey. I've seen, an, a bald Eagle there before. so lots of wildlife in addition to the, the trees and other plants that are there.

[00:07:10] Denys Allen: That's amazing.

[00:07:11] Absolutely amazing. So describe the typical person who's buried at Mount Moriah.

[00:07:17] Jenn O'Donnell: well, that's tough. I'd say there probably isn't a typical person. some of the other large cemeteries in Philadelphia and surrounding areas that were established in the same few decades, primarily catered to a very wealthy clientele and Mount Mariah was not that cemetery.

[00:07:38] There certainly are. large family monuments and mausoleums and plots that certainly people paid a lot of money for, but I'd say there's equally as many just regular citizens of the city of Philadelphia buried there as well. so the cemetery was always non-denominational, which I think also was a little different from some of the other.

[00:08:02] larger cemeteries in the area that catered to a particular group of people.

[00:08:07] Denys Allen: I did read that the military has a section of burials there too, so there's not just churches that have specific areas, but there's also, I guess the department of defense would run those.

[00:08:21] Jenn O'Donnell: Yeah. It's that's actually a unique thing about Mount Moriah.

[00:08:25] There's two. national cemetery. So veteran's cemetery is contained within Mount Moriah. One is the Naval asylum on the Yeadon side of the cemetery. And the other is called soldier's rest on the Philadelphia side of the cemetery and between the two there's thousands of veterans, largely from the civil war, but also, Other time periods as well.

[00:08:49] And there are, a number of church groups purchased sections or lots within the cemetery and a number of organizations, like the Elks or the masons, also purchased either lots or sections to bury their members.

[00:09:07] Denys Allen: Wow. Now this podcast is listened to by genealogists family historian. So this is the question they're going to want me to ask you the records, where are the records for who's buried there?

[00:09:21] Do you have them or,

[00:09:23] Jenn O'Donnell: sort of, so, when the cemetery was closed, the city of Philadelphia came in and helped the friends remove whatever records were in the office building. and they are in, when I guess would say I would call private storage at the city archives. They're not part of the public collections and the friends of Mount Moriah have been working, to digitize all of those records.

[00:09:48] So photographing them, and then, collating them. Basically. We have to. Put them in some sort of order that makes sense. And then have been slowly working on an index, to all of those records. the records are a variety of formats depending on what time period they're from. And, so it's sort of a, to me it's sort of a puzzle trying to put together those pieces.

[00:10:14] We have a fairly decent index and, doesn't include everyone. So we don't know exactly how many people are buried at Mount Moriah yet. but we do have access to all of the different registers and day books and things like that. So we are able to do lookups for people. if they know a, at least a month in a year that somebody passed away,

[00:10:38] Denys Allen: Okay.

[00:10:39] So month and year is critical as well as name obviously, and all the various spellings that we love to have. when we do genealogy research, especially the further back we go. that's exciting though, to digitize those records because it does preserve them in a way you're not handling the originals right.

[00:10:58] Continually, You mentioned you didn't, you weren't sure how many people were buried there, but give us a range. Like what, what are we talking about in terms of we know the size in terms of the land, but how many people about, do you think

[00:11:13] Jenn O'Donnell: my personal guests would be at least 200,000? Whoa, there's a newspaper article from, I have to say 1915, 1920, somewhere in that range.

[00:11:26] That claimed that there was already over a hundred thousand people buried there. So from 1855 to let's say, 1920, and the cemetery was continuously used up until the day that it was abandoned. so we know that burials were happening. so my personal guess is at least 200,000.

[00:11:49] Denys Allen: Wow. I that's, that's a stale.

[00:11:53] It's really astounding. That's a lot of records too.

[00:11:58] so you are currently restoring the cemetery and maintaining it, which is amazing given the size and the scope of, of what you're working with. for folks that are listening to this and realize, Oh, I'm a descendant of someone who's buried there and they want to reconnect.

[00:12:18] how can they support the effort? , are they free to come visit? Tell us, you know, I know a lot of people like maybe leave a flag for veteran's day or read their Christmas, you know, those kinds of things.

[00:12:30] Jenn O'Donnell: Sure. So, Currently the cemetery is open for limited hours, to the public, the Gates. but we welcome visitors.

[00:12:41] during the day, as long as the Gates are open, People are more than welcome to come, look for an ancestor's grave. And, if they find it's in an area or a section that we haven't cleared, yet people are welcome to bring some garden tools and weed Wacker or whatever they have and, and go to work that happens fairly often.

[00:13:02] somebody comes out looking for an ancestor's grave and decides to sort of. Cut a path to it. and then fairly often the same people decide. They're just going to sort of widen that path and the path getting widened becomes, a new section getting opened up. that happens pretty frequently. We do hold events throughout the year that anybody is welcome to come to and you don't have to be somebody who's prepared to weed whack, or use a mower.

[00:13:34] a lot of the work, as I said, is done by hand. So we, we use hand tools pretty frequently, and we have people of all ages that come out to do that. It's really a work at your own pace kind of thing. even for people who aren't interested or aren't able to come out and work on the grounds, we need cheerleaders of, of all sorts.

[00:13:56] We have a very active Facebook group. where people help with burial lookups and research requests. people find in share old photographs and news stories pertaining to the cemetery. we're looking for all of those sorts of things to really collect a full history about the cemetery. we sometimes hold virtual events.

[00:14:20] So there's opportunities for people who don't live in the area as well. and, and of course, donations, when people are able to do that, because everything we're doing on the grounds is completely volunteer, driven.

[00:14:38] Denys Allen: That's amazing. And your Facebook page is wonderful. It really captures, I think the personalities of the volunteers and their commitment to maintaining this for future generations, as well as obviously those of us around today.

[00:14:55] and your website too, a great way to learn about the cemetery, the history and the residents of Mount Moriah and, and , the work that's being done. is there anything else that I should have asked about, or that you want to tell us about Mount Moriah and particularly for the family historians out

[00:15:15] Jenn O'Donnell: there?

[00:15:15] as one of those family historians, myself, I think that, The really the big thing, for us is, that research requests be as complete as possible. and that people understand, we don't have an index that's everybody in alpha order. and so it's impossible to tell an individual. Everybody buried at the cemetery with the last name Smith.

[00:15:42] it's just not something that's accessible to us. We really need at least that month and year, because we have to look at hundreds of years of records to find the right ones. and we do get a number of requests from people just saying, I'm looking for, Jane Smith. so it'll make our jobs easier to have as much information as possible.

[00:16:07] It's probably also worth mentioning. As people are doing research, there were a number of other cemeteries that moved, people to Mount Moriah when the original cemetery closed. And, we do have records for those, but there. Just like the original records that all they date. So if somebody originally died in 1823 and was moved to Mount Moriah, we need to establish when they were actually moved or we'll, we'll never find them in the records.

[00:16:36] so I think that that's one of the big things that'll be helpful and get you a quicker response.

[00:16:43] Denys Allen: Okay. So those records, it sounds like they were captured in date order. So as people were interred, that's when it was recorded in the record? Yes. Yep. Yeah. All right. I had visited a cemetery where they had cards, so . They were , organized by plot. And then by name, you know, they, I guess after they were buried, they put them in the name organization. It was kind of confusing. but, The luckily, let me photograph my ancestors card because they didn't have the money to put up a headstone. And the only reason I found out that they were buried there is I just started actually trolling, every cemetery that was within that town, they've gotta be somewhere, you know,

[00:17:25] Jenn O'Donnell: it's worth mentioning too, because you just mentioned maps. We do have maps of the cemetery and of most sections, but not all sections and many cemeteries have a plat map, which actually shows within a section or a lot precisely where an individual is buried. That type of document does not exist for Mount Moriah.

[00:17:49] I assume it did. At some point it just is not one of the things that was recovered from the office building. So we can give you a section and a lot, and sort of descriptive information about where within a lot somebody is, but , the lots are of different sizes. And so we can't tell you exactly where someone is and it's worth noting because we do have a lot of barrels without a headstone.

[00:18:15] And so we may not be able to pinpoint exactly where in the cemetery and individual

[00:18:20] Denys Allen: is. Oh, interesting. Okay. So, somebody might not discover that the headstone isn't there until they bring those hand tools. And I pictured in my mind this Indiana Jones sort of Explorer,

[00:18:37] Jenn O'Donnell: it's very true that the first, burial that I was looking for that brought me to Mount Moriah.

[00:18:42] I did exactly that, that the lot was filled with knotweed and I actually crawled on my hands and knees into the lot to get at the stones. So very Indiana Jones.

[00:18:54] Denys Allen: I don't know why people think family history is boring. It is not boring at all. They're like, Oh, it's just so dull. I I've had people tell me that.

[00:19:04] I'm like, no, you have no idea. Jen O'Donald thank you so much for being on the podcast and sharing with us about Mount Moriah, how we can support. It currently preserve it for future generations. The work you do is amazing, and I hope people beat down your door with very specific requests, some donations of time and money to support the ongoing effort.

[00:19:28] Jenn O'Donnell: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.


[00:19:35] Be sure to subscribe. So you don't miss an episode of the next Your Pennsylvania ancestors podcast. Do you have an ancestor buried at Mount Moriah or another Auburn cemetery? I'd love to hear about it, throw it in the comments or in the review. And let's see if we can make some connections around those ancestors that we have in these cemeteries.

[00:20:00] In the show notes for this episode are links to the Friends of Mount Moriah group, where you can connect with other people doing research in that cemetery and the descendants of residents of that cemetery. And also a link to historic burial places for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. if you're looking to figure out an ancestor who was buried in a cemetery, that's since been moved or , lost over time, uh, those links will help you figure it out and where the people might be now that you're researching.

[00:20:36] This is Denys Allen of PA ancestors.com. And I wish you many discoveries of your Pennsylvania ancestors.

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