The Geography of Burial

Philadelphia is a city of graveyards. Ethnic diversity and religious tolerance – traits fostered by William Penn’s frame of government – left the colonial settlement strewn with churches. These provided for the burial of members in good standing; the bodies of criminals, paupers, and “strangers” were typically interred on common land known as the “potter’s field.” Throughout the 18th century, Southeast (now Washington) Square served that purpose.

By 1830, local burial customs were in flux. Evicted from its first location, the official potter’s field now lay at the city’s northwest edge. Older churchyards continued to receive bodies but were becoming crowded. However, the most notable change was the rise of “social” or “associate” cemeteries along the city’s southern fringe. Non-sectarian in nature, these institutions offered respectable burial to an emergent middle class whose members feared the potter’s field but did not want or could not afford a place in the churchyard.

James Hamilton Young, engraver. Plan of the City of Philadelphia. Compiled by J. Drayton. Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1833. Enlarged and modified facsimile.

This map originally accompanied A Plan of Philadelphia, or the Stranger's Guide to…the City of Philadelphia and Adjoining Districts (Philadelphia: E. L. Carey, & A. Hart, 1832).  Blue dots mark burial grounds identified in that guidebook.  Red dots highlight the following sites mentioned in this exhibition:

1.) Washington or Southeast Square (former Potter's Field)
2.) Potter's Field at the Vineyard
3.) Blockley Burial Ground (unofficial potter's field)
4.) Gloria Dei or "Old Swedes'" Church
5.) Friends' Western Burial Ground
6.) Mutual Family Burial Ground
7.) Philadelphia Cemetery
8.) Machpelah Cemetery


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