When initially established in 1810 the Bethel Burying Ground was a rural cemetery. Maps of the era show the land as a pasture used by local farmers for grazing cattle and sheep. There were no paved or graded roads, just dirt paths. However, this “suburb” of Philadelphia quickly grew, eventually placing the small cemetery literally in the backyards of tenements on Catherine Street and row homes on Queen and Weccacoe Streets.
And unfortunately in time, like many other graveyards in Philadelphia. BBG fell into poor condition and the trustees of Bethel Church were issued warnings several times in its existence (1810-1889) by the Philadelphia Board of Health to repair and clean up the nuisances asserted by the neighbors that bordered the burial ground.
On November 10, 1847 the Philadelphia Board of Health ruled that BBG was a public nuisance following complaints by neighbors and an inspection by Board members. They issued the an order to the Church’s trustees: “You are hereby notified, that in all future interments made therein each body shall be deposited in the grave six feet in depth, and filled up with earth to a level with the proper surface of the ground; and that nobody shall be kept upon any part of the said grounds, or in any place appertinent and thereto, for a longer period than two hours previous to it being interred as above directed.” Philadelphia Board of Health Minutes for November 10, 1847.
It appears from the archeological record that the trustees answer to the problems was to build a two-foot high brick wall around the graveyard and backfill it with soil. This not only solved the problem of human remains being exposed, but allowed the trustees to bury more bodies in a very crowded area.
“The fact that the cemetery wall is not anchored into the underlying subsoil—but rather sits on top of the buried historic ground surface—and is bounded on either side by visually distinct fill deposits—strongly suggests that this enclosure was originally constructed at or about the time that fill soils were deposited both inside the cemetery grounds and in the adjacent backyards, in order to fill up low-lying areas and level the ground surface. Based on findings from the Phase IA investigation, it was previously thought that this fill was perhaps brought in after the cemetery was closed—possibly during the tenure of Barnabas H. Bartol (1869–1873) or in conjunction with the city’s first improvements to Weccacoe Square in the early 1890s. However, information from the Phase IB study now suggests that this fill material was probably put down at a time relatively late in the period that Mother Bethel was still actively using the burial ground.” (Page 4.1 – Phase IB Archaeological Investigations of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground, 1810 – Circa 1864ER No. 2013-1516-101-A).
Photo of the north retaining wall of the BBG with the headstone of Amelia Brown protruding from the soil. This photo is in the archeological report page 3.17.
“In the 18th and early 19th-century churchyards became increasingly crowded. They became filled and their management became a problem. The limited financial security of a congregation often led to a movement of places of worship and abandonment of burial grounds, which were then redeveloped, and several in Philadelphia have been examined. (Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period, H.C. Mytum, p. 45.)