wearin’ of the green

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What better way to spend St. Patrick’s Day morning than walking through the green… Greenwood Cemetery, to be specific.

I pass Greenwood Cemetery on an irregular basis. Sometimes, I have to take an alternate route to  work when my regular route to New Jersey is temporally interrupted by an opening of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge. On those occasions, I head towards the Betsy Ross Bridge, passing by the relatively small Greenwood Cemetery in the process. Whenever I pass cemeteries, I find myself turning my gaze in the direction of the rows of headstones, half-expecting to spot someone famous from the street while driving 35 miles-per-hour. I never do. Instead, when I get to a computer, I check the usually-reliable Find A Grave website to see if, indeed, a more thorough exploration is warranted. Since Greenwood Cemetery is fairly close to my house, a quick trip on a Sunday morning was not out of the question.

Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1869 by the fraternal (and somewhat mysterious) organization Knights of Pythias to provide burial plots for its members. Once an active and thriving cemetery, Greenwood experienced neglect and was a victim of rampant vandalism. Vegetation became wildly overgrown and, at one point, the grounds became a site for illegal dumping of industrial waste, as well as a number of abandoned cars. The grounds fell into such a state of disrepair that the Knights of Pythias tried (unsuccessfully) to have their name removed from the cemetery’s charter. In 2000, a private company bought Greenwood, with plans to demolish the historic Benjamin Rush house that sits on the premises. (Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is interred at Christ Church Burial Ground in Center City Philadelphia.) There were additional plans to build a funeral home and crematorium. Neighborhood residents fought the plans in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. The courts halted the plans. A subsequent appeal was denied. The Friends of Greenwood Cemetery, a nonprofit organization, took over operations in 2003. The new caretakers began cleaning up the grounds — clearing overgrown woods, mowing lawns— in addition to preserving and organizing burial records. Soon after, they began accepting new burials. Greenwood Cemetery was placed on the Registry of Historic Sites in Philadelphia.

On this particular day, I drove through the entrance gates to happily find that I had the entire place to myself — save for the 20,000 deceased residents. I parked my car and started walking. Near the Benjamin Rush house at the cemetery’s entrance is a large memorial to the many war veterans buried at Greenwood.

In 2008, the adjacent Cancer Treatment Center of America purchased the back part of Greenwood Cemetery to create a parking lot. They paid an additional 3 million dollars to cover the costs of moving headstones and reinterring remains near the front of the property. A mass grave was constructed and the headstones were relocated just behind the newly-dedicated veterans’ memorial.

Just beyond the Rush house, I located the graves of James and Kate Dukenfield.

James served with Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. After his discharge from service, he worked as a produce salesman and helped out in his family’s tavern. He married Kate Felton in 1879. The following year, Kate gave birth to William Claude Dukenfield, who would later take the stage name “W.C. Fields.” James and Kate’s graves received new headstones at a ceremony on Veteran’s Day 2023, where Dr. Harriet Fields, W.C. Field’s granddaughter, was in attendance.

Nearby the Dukenfield gravesite are some examples of funerary statues. These figures were placed in the early 20th century and, despite a bit of wear from the elements, seem to have survived Greenwood’s more adverse periods.


A little further down, closer to the front entrance, is the grave of Thomas Pendegrast.

In 1899, Thomas was instrumental in fighting against insurgent forces in the Philippines. He captured the rebel capital of Malolos, forcing enemy troops into retreat. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts and bravery. Thomas died in 1913. His grave remained unmarked until 2004.

On the other side of the cemetery is the grave of Richard and Elizabeth Noe.

Over a period of twenty years, Marie Noe gave birth to ten children — none of whom made it past the age of 14 months. Two of the children — Theresa and Letitia — died at birth. The others, according to Marie, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Marie garnered sympathy, including a supportive article in LIFE Magazine. However, ongoing investigations determined that Marie had murdered the eight children whose deaths were attributed to SIDS. In 1998, twenty years after the birth of her last child, Marie Noe confessed to suffocating four of her children. She claimed she did not remember what happened to the other four. Marie was charged with first degree murder. A plea agreement was reached in which Marie admitted to eight counts of second-degree murder and she was sentenced in June 1999 to 20 years of probation with the first five years under house arrest. Six of the Noe children are buried at Greenwood. Only Richard and Elizabeth’s names (the first two to die) appear on the grave marker.

Along the property’s edge, under a cluster of trees, is the grave of Carol Ann Thompson.

In 1947, 5-year-old Carol Ann was playing with her brother. They were approached by a man in a car who offered to give Carol Ann a push in her wagon. Suddenly, the driver told the boy: “Your sister is going for a ride” and he drove off with the girl. An hour later, Carol Ann’s body was discovered by a teenager approximately five miles from where the siblings were playing. Carol Ann had been raped and bludgeoned, her body tossed into an ornamental well. Intense investigations pointed to Elmo Smith, a lifelong criminal with similar assaults on his long arrest record. Although no positive identification could place him as Carol Ann’s abductor, Smith was eventually executed for an unrelated murder in 1959. Smith was the last person to die in the electric chair in Pennsylvania before its 1962 suspension. Carol Ann’s murder technically remains unsolved.

As I was leaving Greenwood Cemetery, I spotted a group of headstones sporting the latest trend in grave marking — laser etching.

The first time I saw this practice was over a dozen years ago at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, my very first cemetery visit. I saw a large marble stone with a very realistic photo of a man’s face etched into it. I turned to my son and, while pointing at the portrait, said: “See that? When my time comes… don’t you dare do that on my headstone.”

In the same area, I found this grave unmarked by a headstone.

It was adorned with candles, knick-knacks and a mini slot machine stuffed with folded dollar bills. A small Jesus stands guard, making sure no one takes the money.

I made my way back to my car. I considered stopping for a little rest at the Montemurro grave site, but decided to be on my way.

It’s good to know a rest area exists, though… in case I come back. I wonder if they serve refreshments?

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