Thursday, September 12, 2013

Finding the forgotten: the Sussex County welfare cemetery

It couldn't have been any more poetic. As we drove through Frankford to our recent speaking engagement at the Sussex County Library, we found hidden history we didn't expect. Across County Road 655 and a few hundred feet up was a wooden gate with a large sign that denoted the Sussex County Welfare Home Cemetery. A field just beyond was hilly and covered mostly in tall grass, though one section appeared to be a bit better kept.

Having already stumbled on the largely unmarked Warren County poorhouse cemetery, we were glad to see that at the very least, Sussex had seen fit to make the presence of its potters field clear to passers-by. Also unlike its counterpart in Pequest, this graveyard was in proximity to the almshouse where the buried once lived. The large old white building has been converted to government offices, but those familiar with poorhouse architecture can easily determine its previous use.

Finding grave markers in the Sussex cemetery was as difficult as it was in Pequest, but for another reason. Rather than laying stones with name and date of death atop the surface above each grave, the Sussex authorities used simple numbered stone stakes. Perhaps it was less expensive that way -- markers could be ordered in bulk and engraving costs were much lower than they would have been had the names been inscribed. Or maybe it just didn't occur to management that someone might someday want to pay respects to a loved one. Traditionally, people end up in almshouses because they have no other options, no loved ones or friends to turn to, or perhaps they've alienated everyone who can help them. Many Sussex Alms House residents were probably as forgotten in life as they are now, in death.

We did find that one of the graves was decorated with two U.S. flags and a marker denoting the deceased as a World War veteran. Obviously, someone knew who was buried there and regarded him enough to have the designation placed. Other visitors, unfortunately, would have to do some investigative work. The county must have a list that matches grave number to the buried person's name, but the veteran's marker -- and those around it -- was too weathered to yield even that small bit of information.

The unnamed veteran, however, made out a bit better than many who died at the alms house before him. Turns out that the history behind the internment of the deceased is a little more involved than we anticipated. According to The Sussex County Alms House by Phyllis and John Stanaback, another cemetery "attached to the Institution" received unclaimed bodies of the indigent dead in unmarked graves from 1833 until 1900. The cemetery we'd found was opened in 1900 with the burial of Charles Bird under the stone marked 1. At least 140 graves are documented, though some have estimated that there may have been as many as 300 people buried there by the time the cemetery closed in 1955.

Judging by the state of the markers we were able to discern in the field, it's easy to accept that there are more hiding in the grass beyond the three or four visible rows. Perhaps a careful scything of the tall growth will yield signs of more graves. What's most unfortunate is that somewhere in the area is a field where the earlier deceased lie, unmarked and unremembered. Finding them sounds like a good project for an enterprising student of history.

Many thanks to Sussex County Senior Librarian Michelle Aluotto for her assistance in uncovering the history of the cemetery!

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