Friday, October 11, 2013

Deciphering the dead: New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery

I know... I know... we find ourselves in cemeteries a lot, probably more than anyone who isn't a funeral director, horror groupie or purveyor of dark arts. Truth is, you can find a lot of history in graveyards. Close examination of monuments and grave markers can give you remarkable insight into a community's past and its evolution to what it is today.

New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery is a case in point. Nestled in a lot behind the city library, its wrought iron fencing is barely visible from busy George Street, where I often spied it while riding the Rutgers campus bus. It wasn't until recently that I got around to investigating it, and it took a bit of doing to get there. Morris Street, its actual address, is one way flowing toward George Street, so I had to navigate a couple of blocks of side streets before I found the right way to get access. Fortunately, there was plenty of curbside parking, often a tough find in downtown New Brunswick.

Two things struck me as soon as I got a good look at the graveyard. First, it was obviously once a very desirable place to rest for eternity. Several tall monuments marked railed-off family plots, and I recognized some of the names as notable citizens of New Brunswick and/or Rutgers leaders.

Second, the cemetery is in grave need of restoration. While the grass is reasonably short in much of the acreage, other areas are overgrown with weeds and just plain untended. An aerial view indicates what appear to be a pile of gravestones dumped in the southeastern portion of the property. Easily half of the stones still in burial areas are off their bases, either knocked over or moved. And the back side of a large obelisk inscribed with the cemetery's 19th century trustees is tagged with graffiti.

There's no signage to tell you the name or history of the cemetery; in reality it's actually the conglomeration of three burial grounds. The oldest portion, closest to George Street, was consecrated in 1837 when the Presbyterian Cemetery was moved from Burnett Street (largely replaced by Route 18, this street pretty much ran along the Raritan). Willow Grove officially began in 1851 in the portion of the cemetery closest to Livingston Avenue. The land between the two was opened as the Central (or Cheesman) Cemetery in 1868.

One of the reasons I wanted to check out the cemetery was because I'd heard that some Japanese exchange students were buried there in the 1800s, having perished in New Brunswick while they were attending Rutgers. If memory served, the legend was that there'd been some sort of epidemic that lead to their deaths (My research is pointing to a few different stories, which I'll share in a future post.), and I suspected that this cemetery was their final resting place.

Often, the farther back you go in old cemeteries, the worse the damage is, but fortunately the Japanese section is an exception. Six obelisks stand in memory of the deceased, with Japanese inscriptions on the shafts and English translation of their names and dates on the base. Another base sits alongside, having likely met the same fate as so many of the other monuments around the graveyard that have been tilted over. A more modern, round-topped stone memorializes a child, while another newer granite slab lists the names of the seven adults and their dates of death. It appeared that some sort of remembrance had happened recently, as dried flowers were laid at some of the stones, and several foil-lined coffee cans stood in one corner, smudged with carbon from candles or incense that might have been burned in them. In any case, the shrubbery and bonsai-like trees around the plot lead me to believe that it's being well-cared for.

Not far from the Japanese section, I found a curiously new marker with a fresh American flag stuck in front. Adorned with a shield, the inscription notes the death in line of duty of William Van Arsdale of the New Brunswick Police Department in 1856. Research indicates that Officer Van Arsdale was patrolling the coal yards near the Delaware and Raritan Canal when he fell, broke through the icy surface of the canal and drowned. The next morning, a worker found the officer's hat, frozen into the ice next to the hole his body had created. He left behind a wife and six children.

The easternmost portion of the cemetery is easily the least kept portion, to the point where it's disturbing. In some portions, it appears to be in a successional phase, where shrubs will soon overtake the weeds and grass if left undisturbed. A few obelisks poke out of the tall brush to mark the graves of prominent citizens, while a sloped area appears to be full of discarded gravestones. Climbing in to check it out didn't seem wise, but it also appeared that there'd been a concerted effort to move the stones into a pile. This couldn't have been done surreptitiously by malevolent forces.

The mystery was solved, to some extent, when I checked in with a New Brunswick librarian, who confirmed that the stones had, indeed, been moved intentionally when the graves' contents were transferred to Van Liew Cemetery in North Brunswick. Further research shows that 520 sets of remains were relocated in 1920 to make room for new construction. Perhaps the expense and hassle of moving the gravestones with the remains was too great for consideration; I'll have to make a visit to Van Liew to see where they ended up and how they're marked. In any case, many of the headstones still rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery section of Willow Grove, jumbled and marking nothing.


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