Graveyard Shift: Digging Up the Facts on Two of Jersey City's Oldest Cemeteries

A Scripted Freelance Writer Writing Sample

[Excerpt] The Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery provides nighttime activities as part of its ongoing fundraising campaign, including concerts, plays, and candlelight tours. The cemetery's Board of Trustees is currently led by Eileen Markenstein, who jokingly calls the historic resting place "the biggest garden I've ever had." The site first opened in 1829 as the first cemetery company in the state of New Jersey. "Up until that time cemeteries were in churchyards," Markenstein explains. "It's also one of the first three garden landscape style cemeteries, with trees, ivy and rolling hills. This began a whole revolution of what cemeteries would be come. This was the very first park in Jersey City, people would come here and picnic and spend the day." Because of the way it was founded, this cemetery, unlike Holy Name, has no religious affiliation. "There's everything here," Markenstein says. "Just look at the names and types of stones, you'll get an idea of the diversity." Markenstein's interest in the Jersey City Cemetery began for personal reasons; her parents, grandparents, great grandparents are all buried there. Prior to her involvement, the cemetery had fallen into severe disrepair when several members of the board of directors passed away and were not replaced. She says the remaining staff members were taking advantage of this situation, sowing a field of financial ruin. "Families would come in to have a burial and the caretaker would have the family write a check to him personally," Markenstein says. "In the end, the last staff member simply locked the gate and walked away because there was literally no money left." As she'd pass by the cemetery, she sensed something had gone wrong with its management. "I had been coming here since I was a little girl," Markenstein recalls. "We realized something was terribly wrong. Spring came, the whole place got so overgrown. It was a meadow of weeds; you couldn't see half the stones. " In addition, the site's somewhat remote location — nestled into the Palisade on Newark Avenue with very few immediate neighbors — coupled with the cemetery's disrepair to create an open invitation for vandalism, theft and other petty crimes. "People would scurry past the cemetery, being quite fearful of the characters coming in and out of the grounds," she says. "The gatehouse was raided and the copper piping stolen." Markenstein came together with other family members and tried to figure out how to fix the problem. "[We] called everybody … the police, the mayor. We found out the cemetery is owned by plot owners, by law," she says. "It's almost like a co-op — everybody is responsible for their little plot. Collectively, they're almost like shareholders of a small corporation." "We don't sell graves, there's no space; we're not a true operating cemetery in that aspect," she says. "But we have had about ten funerals since we've taken over. Those were persons that owned a grave and their family had a deed, and we were able to locate the space and open the grave ourselves." The cemetery is decidedly low-tech when it comes to its upkeep. There is no big machinery (though they are in the midst of a fundraising campaign to buy a Bobcat Excavator), so the volunteers have put a lot of sweat equity into the project. "It's pretty amazing, can you ever imagine digging a grave? Just all volunteers got together, and we were like, 'Here's a shovel,'" Markenstein laughs. "Everything we do here is by hand; there is no equipment other than shovels. So we make due with what we have. It's definitely different than the typical crew." The cemetery now has the added benefit of 24-hour security. John Wilson, the caretaker, lives in the historic gatekeeper house in exchange for helping out at the cemetery. "Nothing bad happens here," Markenstein says. "Kids mainly come in and try and play, and we don't want anyone to get hurt." Volunteers work in the cemetery every day of the week assisting with landscaping, seasonal groundskeeping and restoration. "There are tombstones almost two hundred years old, that have fallen down into the earth and were just left there," Markenstein says. "Every time we see a lump in the grass, sure enough there's a stone in the earth that probably fell over 50 years ago." There is also a fair amount of genealogical study to be done, as people track down their ancestors. "We reconnected a young man with his great, great, great grandfather, who was a civil war hero," Markenstein says. Like Holy Name, Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery has recently added a mausoleum. However, instead of building one, the volunteers discovered one. "We didn't know it was there; it was covered by the forest. We started cutting down these giant weeds — literally with machetes," Markenstein says. "We discovered these stairs and this doorway, and there is a labyrinth of underground crypts and tunnels. It is just remarkable. I've been inside to explore, and one of our goals is to open that up for tourism." She hopes that through their fundraising efforts and the continual support from volunteers, Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery will eventually be able to open a museum and share the graveyard's history.

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