Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Cemetery Swing: The region’s historic graveyards offer a fascinating take on the past.

Screenshot 2015-06-01 08.25.46Search the web for things to do in Harrisburg and you will find the typical list of “Harrisburg-y” possibilities: tour the Capitol, visit the National Civil War Museum, ride the Pride. However, No. 24 on the list of 30 offers an unexpected option— visit Harrisburg Cemetery.

A cemetery as a tourist attraction? I couldn’t resist.

Cemeteries meet the interests of a number of groups, especially history buffs. With a cemetery visit, you get the collective history of those buried there, the history of art used to commemorate their lives, and the history of wars or struggles in which they participated.

“So many interesting stories, that’s the way it is, though—all the old cemeteries, they have a story to tell,” said Barbara Barksdale, co-chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project and president of Friends of Midland, a non-profit that cares for the predominantly African-American Midland Cemetery in Steelton. “The history is just crazy in cemeteries around here.”

Some of those stories are individual, such as Herbert “Rap” Dixon, who, in 1930, became the first black man to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium. Then there’s Lemuel Butler, born in Harrisburg in 1844, a teamster who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Other stories are broader. Looking at the dates on the stones, it’s clear that some of those buried in Midland were slaves or freed slaves who mostly likely worked on the farm where the cemetery now sits. Midland is also the resting place of veterans of numerous storied African-American military groups, including the Buffalo Soldiers, the U.S. Colored Troops, Montford Point Marines and the Tuskegee Airmen.

“I want people to go away with—it’s more than a headstone,” said Barksdale, who gives tours of the cemetery.

Local Notables

Screenshot 2015-06-01 08.25.35Harrisburg Cemetery, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, holds local and national history, as well.

In the walking tour, David Via, superintendent of the cemetery, pointed out the governors, soldiers and local people of interest buried there. Names like Berryhill, Calder, Cameron and Kelker, among many others, read like the street signs of Harrisburg.

“The Walking Tour Guide of Harrisburg Cemetery,” available at the caretaker’s house at the entrance to the cemetery, provides information on those buried there, as well as other intriguing aspects of the place.

Via said that 155 Civil War soldiers are buried in the cemetery and pointed out that the simple, white tombstones differ. The monuments for the Union soldiers have rounded tops, while the Confederate soldiers have pointed tops.

“Supposedly, so the damn Yankees couldn’t sit on them,” Via said of the Confederate stones.

Veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War are all represented in the cemetery.

Down the highway a bit, the Old Public Graveyard in Carlisle holds the remains of 53 Revolutionary War soldiers, including Molly Pitcher, the famous female fighter and heroine. Her monument is one of the larger ones in the graveyard.

A guide mentions that the oldest marker is from 1757 and that the cemetery is the final resting place of a Civil War drummer boy and of Judge Frederick Watts, president of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, a U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture and a person “instrumental in the founding of Penn State.”

Manmade, Natural Beauty

While civic and war history engage many, the art history in cemeteries also should be noticed. Cemeteries large and small typically contain a gate, sometimes simple, sometimes ornate, which signifies the separation between the everyday world and the cemetery space.

A 30-foot-tall obelisk, representing eternal life from the Haldeman family plot, greets visitors to Harrisburg Cemetery. Tombstones on the grounds hold symbolic art. Anchors represent hope, ferns sorrow and lambs innocence.

The Old Public Graveyard contains many family plots with iron gates, some with intricate scrollwork, conveying a sense of privacy for the deceased.

Examples of white bronzes exist in both Harrisburg Cemetery and the Old Public Graveyard. These gray headstones, made of a combination of copper, tin and zinc, show little weathering even after a century of exposure.

The natural beauty of cemeteries is another draw. Quiet places, they provide a serene environment to walk, write, read or explore. Harrisburg Cemetery, in particular, has a wonderful array of plant life. In appreciation of its many flowering trees, the cemetery held a tree walk in April.

Trees include the well-known flowering dogwood, the crabapple and the northern red oak, as well as the less-recognized Kentucky coffee tree with its unusual pods, the English hawthorn lined with thorns and the Japanese pagoda tree, which sports bumpy, string bean-type seeds.

Via pointed out ivy growing on a stone that originated from a trimming from Martin Luther’s grave. Similar to English ivy but smaller in size, he calls it “Martin Luther’s ivy.”

Before visiting a cemetery, do a little research. Often, online, printable guides will direct visitors to points of interest within the cemetery and to any special artistic and planting features.

Visitors should follow posted rules, which often vary from cemetery to cemetery. While they provide a park-like atmosphere, with lots of space, grass and trees, cemeteries are not playgrounds. Stones are heavy and often old and could seriously injure someone standing or leaning on them. Groundhogs, which frequent cemeteries, burrow under stones, leaving large holes. Tread carefully.

Cemeteries serve as the burial ground for the dead, but offer much to the living. Those looking for a way to spend a summer day may want to consider a visit. Even the skeptical should try it once, as they may have a similar reaction to students who spent time in Midland Cemetery. As Barksdale put it, “Once I got them, they were hooked.”

For more information on the cemeteries mentioned:

  • Hallowed Grounds tour:
  • Harrisburg Cemetery:
  • Midland Cemetery: Friends of Midland Cemetery on Facebook
  • Old Public Graveyard, Carlisle:
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