"The Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, incorporated in 1831, reflects a transition between the colonial graveyards and the garden cemeteries of the Rural Cemetery Movement. The cemetery encompassed design features from both types of burial grounds but never fully embraced one or the other." This interpretation of the historical significance of New Jersey's first incorporated cemetery is advanced by Mark Nonestied in his article "Burial Reform at the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery" (GardenStateLegacy.com, June 2011).
Located on 5.5 acres south of Newark Avenue, the cemetery site dates back to the Revolutionary War when the General Marquis de Lafayette and British forces clashed in 1780. The grounds were also used as an ammunition bunker and lookout point during the War of 1812 and later for military training during World Wars I and II. The hills of the cemetery may have sheltered tunnels in Jersey City's Underground Railroad operation for the freeing of slaves.
The origins for the cemetery, it is claimed, came in 1829 after local residents refused to pay a $12 charge to open a plot purchased in the historic Old Bergen Church Cemetery. They wished to bury an unidentified man whose body was found on the shore off Paulus Hook. The money for the plot and marker was collected, but when the sexton requested the additional fee they refused. Concern about recent cholera epidemics in New Jersey, such as in nearby Bayonne, may have led to the additional burial fee. A meeting held at Hugh McCutcheon's Farmers' Hotel at 42 York Street resulted in a decision to form a cemetery company and eliminate the need to use the church burial ground at Bergen. The new cemetery was incorporated on February 9, 1831. David Cadwallader Colden, son of Cadwallader Colden, the mayor of New York City and one of the investors in the Associates of the Jersey Company, became the president of the board of trustees. The historic Gatekeeper House dates back to the year of the cemetery's incorporation.
Nonestied writes that William F. Bridges surveyed the cemetery using ". . . a grid system with 18 foot by 18 foot family plots and 12 foot by 18 foot vault lots that were divided by the main cemetery road, 12 foot cartways and 6 foot pathways. The total number of lots was 347 . . . ." Subscribers purchased lots for $20 each with a $5 down payment and they as owners elected a board of trustees. This concept, notes Nonestied "gave the lot holders the authority to elect a board that would manage and govern the cemetery" away from ecclesiastical control. Delinquencies in subscriber payments, however, handicapped the board with the upkeep of the grounds.
By the 1850s, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery had begun to include the new features of the Rural Cemetery Movement with landscaping of trees, plants and flowers, an iron gate, retail greenhouse and caretaker's house. Like other garden-style cemeteries, it became a destination for visitors to view the plantings and monuments. Nonestied notes, ". . . visitors had become such a problem that they were soon required to procure tickets for admission." The location of the cemetery at Bergen Hill permitted the construction of vaults as well as elaborate monuments. "The receiving vault . . . initially started as three private family vaults, built in the 1830s for the Colgate family," remarks Nonestied. William Colgate, founder of the Colgate's Soap and Perfumery Works, later Colgate-Palmolive Peet, was one of the first subscribers, but the family members were later reinterred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The family members of Isaac Edge are buried in a brownstone vault in the cemetery.
According to Colin Egan, "From its inception the cemetery has served the people of downtown Jersey City and bears witness to the area's changing ethnic make-up." There are markers for the descendants of early Dutch and English settlers like Jacob Van Riper and May Rood Drayton. Monuments also give witness to the numbers of Germans, Russians, Polish and Italians, who arrived in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the markers, the oldest is that of Andrew Gammell, who died June 22, 1830. The burial grounds contain the graves of many Civil War soldiers. Nonestied notes that the popularity of the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery began to wane as early as the 1850s with the founding of the New York Bay Cemetery, "a garden style burial ground." He also comments that, in an attempt to compete for space and profitability, "In 1876, the [Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery] burial ground was resurveyed and all unsold family plots were converted to single plots." The sale of plots continued through the twentieth century.
In 1955, the Hudson Dispatch printed an article on the 126th anniversary of the cemetery and commented about its status in the city: "Stretching out like a huge octopus with the passing years, the city has all but enveloped that once quiet and secluded section. To the north and west, city streets entwine the cemetery, and to the south the Pennsylvania Railroad has right-of-way. Still free on the east, however, it is bordered by Mary Benson Park, a favorite recreation spot for children." Its location may have limited expansion, but it otherwise fulfills one of the purposes of the Rural Cemetery Movement to keep cemeteries away from areas of potential industrial development. The cemetery nonetheless has served the community "to provide a fit and proper burial place" (quoted in Nonestied) for its departed.
It received popular attention when it was used for the filming of several episodes of the HBO-TV series The Sopranos.
The Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery continues today under the supervision of an independent board of trustees, reorganized in 2007, for the purpose of preserving this local landmark. Volunteers work to maintain the monuments and tombstones as well as the grounds. They are assisted by the annual spring arrival of several goats from upstate New York who graze on the seasonal growth of poison ivy and Japanese knotwood.
Barbagallo, Lauren. "Old Burial Ground, New Life." New Jersey Monthly May 2016.
"Burial Fee Row Launched Cemetery in Jersey City." Hudson Dispatch 28 July 1955.
Egan, Colin. "The Hudson Underground." Hudson County Magazine Fall 1991:37-40.
"The Historic Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery." http://jerseycitycemetery.org
Koepp, Paul. "Former Worker Sheds Some Light on Cemetery's Past." Jersey Journal 24 May 2008.
Nonestied, Mark. "Burial Reform at the Jersey City & Harsimus Cemetery." GardenStateLegacy.com. Issue 12, June 2011.
Zinsli, Christopher. "The History and Diversity of Jersey City's Cemeteries." Jersey CITY Magazine. Fall & Winter 2004/2005.