FRIENDS SOUTHWESTERN BURIAL GROUND: A brief history by Karen Winner (2002)
If you go west on Spruce Street until you get to Cobbs Creek, cross into Upper Darby, go up the hill and then take the first right, you will come to Friends South Western Burial Ground (FSWBG) seventeen acres, with trees, squirrels and simple gravestones, surrounded by blocks of row houses that replaced the Eighteenth Century farms and mills.
It is our inheritance -brought to us in 1957 by Twelfth Street Meeting when it and Race Street Meeting merged to form Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Burial grounds were established at a time when they were considered integral parts of meeting life. They were most often situated next to the meeting house, but because Philadelphia was growing in population and Friends were also moving to the western suburbs, Twelfth Street Friends decided to establish a burial ground outside the city limits.
In 1860 they bought land in Upper Darby for $9,767.45, contracted to build a house and stable for $6,211.63, hired a caretaker to live in the house, and laid out lots for family burials. Twenty years later the three Center City meetings purchased two adjacent acres, laid out single grave lots, and called the addition the Friends Marshall Road Burial Ground. At the same time, the stone and iron fence was extended around the block and both burial grounds.
Since then, not much has changed. All Friends and "professors with Friends, or those having, by consanguinity or other reasonable cause, a claim on their consideration, in accordance with the existing practice in the Society" were invited to bury loved ones at FSWBG—and brochures were provided that clearly spelled out "existing practice." Families were reminded that no one, no priest nor minister, was to "recite the words, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ sprinkle earth upon the coffin or into the grave, or perform any other act contrary to the view of the Society of Friends." It was urged that only relatives and near friends of the deceased come to the burial, "whereby the need of a large procession of carriages might be avoided." Also, commending Friends to proper deportment at the Arch Street burial ground in 1827, a minute was drafted recommending that in attending burials the order of the procession was to be relatives, then women, then men, and lastly the children who were to be not "hasty in falling in before those who are advanced in age." (Rufus, honey, please don’t fall in.)
In the recent past, Friends were urged to conform to true simplicity in all funeral arrangements, to avoid the custom of wearing mourning and to avoid elaborate and expensive caskets. Today the only "rule" is, for the sake of simplicity and an expressed commitment to the equality of all persons, that elaborate grave markers be discouraged. It is also noted that for the sake of mowing the grass markers flush with the ground might be best. Experience tells us this is a good idea.
Taking care of a burial ground is a lot of work. At FSWBG the job has always been done with the labor and management of a caretaker at the direction of a meeting committee. For the first one hundred years there were only four caretakers—all from the same family. Committee minutes over the years are largely about the committee and the caretakers working out how tasks get done, how to pay for things, and what to do when lapsed attention to one thing or another creates a small emergency. The original caretaker had a horse and a cow—the horse being used for burial ground work it seems, as the minutes note much discussion about what hay he could and couldn’t use for his animals. Addressing the need for hauling things about the grounds, two recent managers at different times proposed buying old trucks. Each time (we didn’t learn the first time) the result was that the truck died and was left to rust next to the house. Minutes reflect much committee consternation on how to get rid of these rusting eyesores.
Graham, our current manager, bought a tricycle that pulls a cart that hauls the dirt and more, now replaced by an electric golf cart. As the grounds have become as much a green space as a place for burials, still kept in the spirit of its Quaker history, the work that is done has essentially not changed over the years. Reading the old minutes is a bit like watching a mini-series that plays over and over. The manager no longer mows the grass—now a contractor does. As for the rest, the house has always needed repairs, the barn a roof, the hemlocks spraying, the trees trimming or planting, and leaves collecting. Graves need digging, burial records keeping, and the fence mending (where neighbors have bent the bars to get in when they haven’t wanted to walk all the way to the gate). The roads need plowing, the gardens tending, burials arranging. We bought a trike to replace the horse then an electric golf cart, and installed indoor plumbing to replace the green shingled outhouse - otherwise, were the first manager to return, he might feel right at home.
People who live in the culturally diverse neighborhood around the burial ground have told us how much they appreciate this place where they can walk their dogs and enjoy the peace and quiet. Even when neighbors have contacted us in a scolding way, registering their dismay about our flea market (sacrilegious), or about abandoned trucks (ugly), we figured that was a good thing (for the most part) because they do notice things and care that the grounds are kept up. A letter came to the committee in 1935: "Not only is rubbish deposited, but the various milk company wagons store their empty bottles along the wall and when the school children pass by, they cannot resist the temptation of smashing them This not only mars the beauty of the grounds, but causes considerable damage to tires of passing cars." That there is reason for complaint hasn’t changed, but we haven’t gotten a letter so beautifully written in years.
The burial ground is one of those things we call a "gift": something that we have been given, that we didn’t ask for, but in which we have faith that a blessing will emerge. Traditions have changed and the old reasons for having our own cemetery have disappeared as family members move states away, and as many of us talk about cremation and having our ashes sprinkled in the river. In case we get impatient while looking for clarity on what it is that we have inherited, Faith & Practice reminds us of our "responsibility in perpetuity" to maintain the old burial grounds. We will always be responsible for the care of almost 4,000 graves - for the old ones and for those that are added each year. Maybe this place is for us one of grounding and simplicity. It is a beautiful urban green space where neighbors and visitors find respite from busy city lives. For Friends who provide stewardship, the work is basic and practical. It is keeping a bit of God’s green earth growing for the pleasure of those who come by and for those who are buried there. That’s the burial ground.
GENEALOGICAL RECORDS FROM 1895 TO 2000 ARE ON THE WEB AT:
Surnames beginning A - G http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/delaware/cemeteries/friendssw1.txt
Surnames beginning H - O http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/delaware/cemeteries/friendssw2.txt
Surnames beginning P - Z http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/delaware/cemeteries/friendssw3.txt
(Please note we are often confused with Darby Friends Meeting Burial Ground whose records are here http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/delaware/cemeteries/darbyfbg.txt)
We hope to add those from 1860-1895 in the near future- feel free to contact us with enquiries, using the contact us form.
Tombstone Images for selected burials can be found at:
Many historical records of this and other Quaker Burial Grounds in the area are at Swarthome Colleges Friends Historical Library: http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/friends/philaburials3.htm