Searching old graveyards for New Jersey’s notable dead may seem somewhat macabre. But look closely and you can find intriguing bits of history, magnificent examples of period carving and sculpture, serene landscapes and even poetry. You just have to be alive to the possibilities.
Throughout New Jersey, scores of burial grounds can rightly claim to be historic, including native burial sites, Colonial-era churchyards, and small family and township plots. We have chosen 14 that represent key moments in the state’s history or can claim an abundance of historic figures.
At our earliest cemeteries, time has toppled many gravestones and worn away most inscriptions, yet those that remain reflect the austere lifestyle and deep faith of our Colonial ancestors. Winged angels and promises of a glorious afterlife can still be seen on the crumbling stones.
In the 19th century, as cities grew, landscape designers laid out urban graveyards with meandering walkways, rolling hills and plenty of shade trees. These park-like burial grounds were so inviting, they became popular destinations for weekend outings. “People had picnics in those historic cemeteries,” says Rich Sauers, historian of Trenton’s Riverview Cemetery, a prime example of the parkland aesthetic. Alas, in the 20th century, cemeteries became more utilitarian, with neat rows of uniform gravestones; some are so regimented, they only allow footstones.
Not surprisingly, cemeteries go the distance to honor the nation’s military dead. Many historic cemeteries have sections dedicated to veterans of the American Revolution and subsequent conflicts. New Jersey even has a post-Civil War burial ground, Finn’s Point National Cemetery, created specifically for Confederate dead.
Cemeteries can also reflect life’s inequities. For much of New Jersey’s history, African Americans, both free and enslaved, were buried in separate sections of cemeteries, often in unmarked graves—if they were allowed in the cemeteries at all. At least one New Jersey cemetery is in the process of redressing this wrong with a monument to these long-forgotten dead.
While cemeteries are resting places for the departed, my visits were not devoid of human interactions. At Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, a groundskeeper who led me to the grave of Sarah Vaughan was unfamiliar with her music. I suggested he find “April in Paris” on his cell phone. Soon we had Sassy singing a graveside concert through his truck’s speakers. At Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, the foreman helped me locate the footstone of Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane, which was hidden under a thatch of overgrown weeds and grass. He promised to have the groundskeepers make the marker visible for future callers.
Visitors also make their presence felt. At Gate of Heaven, a Catholic cemetery in East Hanover, I was moved to find that, in the ancient Jewish tradition, dozens of visitors had left pebbles on the headstone of Yogi Berra and his wife, Carmen. At the George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, fans of another Yankee legend, Elston Howard, had embedded baseballs into the earth around the catcher’s footstone.
Some of the departed seem to speak to their visitors. In the First Presbyterian Burial Grounds in Elizabeth, the obelisk above the remains of Pastor Nicholas Murray (who died in 1861) declares: “My work is done.” But, wrenchingly, at First Presbyterian Church in Rockaway, you can almost hear the faint whisper of little Gussie Bryan, who died just after her 12th birthday in 1886. Etched on her gravestone are the words, “I am tired I want to go to sleep.”
Perhaps oddest of all is the monument to Montclair-born mentalist the Amazing Kreskin, which stands a few rows away from the Berra monument in Gate of Heaven. Kreskin’s inscription reads, “Even now, I know what you’re thinking!” Odder still, last I checked, Kreskin, 87, was still alive.
To research this story, I relied heavily on the excellent Find a Grave search engine to locate notable gravesites, and my car’s GPS to find the cemeteries. As I approached each graveyard, my GPS advised, “You have reached your destination.” I tried not to take that too literally. Here are 14 New Jersey cemeteries of note, arranged chronologically, based on date established.
Friends Burying Ground
340 High Street, Burlington
Located in a neatly groomed field behind the still active Quaker Meeting House in the center of historic Burlington, this early burial ground is notable for its 1930 monument to a Native American, Chief Ockanickon of the Mantas Lenape, who assisted William Penn in his local explorations. The monument describes the chief as a “friend of the white man.” Most of the other monuments here are more modest, as befits Quakers; the older ones are barely legible. An online map can help you find the graves of Stephen Grellet, a Quaker missionary who escaped execution in France in 1795; Dr. Joseph W. Taylor, the founder of Bryn Mawr College; and at the rear left of the cemetery, Peter Hill, an African American slave and skilled clockmaker who died in 1820 and whose works are displayed at the Smithsonian.
Old First Presbyterian Cemetery
42 Broad Street, Elizabeth
There are more than 2,000 gravesites in this crowded churchyard at the center of downtown Elizabeth, most from the Colonial era. A map near the front of the church indicates several notable graves; an app provides details. If the gates are locked, you can enter on a path at the unfenced rear of the graveyard. The centuries have rendered many of the lichen-covered stones illegible, but it’s easy to spot the obelisk memorializing the Rev. James Caldwell (namesake of the modern-day Caldwells) and his wife, Hannah, both of whom were killed under suspicious circumstances during the American Revolution. (James is believed to have been shot by a traitor; Hannah was shot through the window of their home.) Other key figures laid to rest here include Continental Army Brigadier General Elias Dayton and Revolutionary War officers Matthias and Aaron Ogden and their father, Robert. Aaron went on to become the fifth governor of New Jersey.
There is also an African American section marked by a small plot on the edge of the parking lot—some with the tombstones inscribed “Col’d” for colored. The recent finding of more than 313 unmarked graves of African Americans will soon be honored with a monument.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard
145 West Broad Street, Burlington
Walking distance from Friends Burying Ground in downtown Burlington, this sprawling cemetery wraps around a towering, Gothic Revival-style church completed in 1854. Visitors enter the churchyard through the original 1883 wooden archway. Clustered just ahead are the graves of Revolutionary War veterans Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress, and William Bradford, the second U.S. attorney general (and the husband of Boudinot’s daughter, Susan). Buried near the gate behind the small chapel at the northeast corner of the cemetery is Joseph Bloomfield, fourth governor of New Jersey, and namesake of the town of Bloomfield.
870 Centre Street, Trenton
General George B. McClellan may have been removed from his command by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and lost his run for the presidency to Lincoln in 1864, but after his death in 1885, his followers gave him what remains the most impressive gravesite in all of New Jersey. The granite column memorializing McClellan, who served as New Jersey’s governor from 1878 to 1881, stands some 50 feet high and is topped by an intricately sculpted eagle. The column is easy to spot at the center of this parkland cemetery. Also buried here is Brooklyn Bridge builder John A. Roebling, whose large sarcophagus dominates the west side of the cemetery’s perimeter road. Continue past the receiving vault (where bodies were stored in winter when graves were dug by hand), and you’ll spot the vault containing the remains of John Taylor, creator of the iconic pork roll that bears his name.
1670 Saint Georges Avenue, Rahway
This well-shaded cemetery is the final resting place for some 70 veterans of the American Revolution and scores of Civil War soldiers, including many African American troops. Declaration of Independence signer Abraham Clark (after whom the nearby township of Clark is named) is buried here under a restored monument. Ironically, Rahway’s best-known tombstone, dated 1887, is inscribed “An Unknown Woman.” It marks the grave of an anonymous murder victim whose killer was never found. Despite national headlines and the public display of her corpse, the woman was never identified. The grave still attracts frequent visitors.
First Presbyterian Churchyard
57 East Park Place, Morristown
Established: Circa 1730
Largely hidden behind an imposing 19th-century church, this rambling, Colonial-era burial ground abounds with the remains of Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans. Enter by foot via the driveway between the sanctuary and the Howard House, the 1885 home of the church’s former pastor. On your left are the restored graves of the prominent Ford family, including Theodosia Ford, who hosted General George Washington in her Morristown home for the winter of 1779-1780, following the death of her husband, Colonel Jacob Ford Jr., who lies in the neighboring grave. Several plaques can help you find additional graves of local notables, including Jacob Arnold, whose tavern on the neighboring Morristown Green was Washington’s headquarters in early 1777; and, at the far end of the burial ground, members of the Vail, Condict, and other locally important clans.
29 Greenview Avenue, Princeton
Sometimes referred to as the Westminster Abbey of New Jersey, this impeccably maintained burial ground, two blocks from the campus of Princeton University, is first and foremost the resting place of Grover Cleveland, the only U.S. president born (and buried) in New Jersey. Flanking Cleveland’s monument are those of his wife, Frances, and their daughter, Ruth, who is fabled to be the inspiration for the Baby Ruth candy bar. In front of Cleveland are the graves of his close friend Oscar Folsom and Folsom’s wife, Emma Harmon Folsom (the parents of Frances). Opposite the Cleveland/Folsom plot, you can spot the elegant tombstones of author John O’Hara and his wife, Katharine. Nearby is the large monument to merchant/philanthropist Paul Tulane, a Princeton native. Among the luminaries buried in the oldest part of the cemetery, along Wiggins Street, are early university presidents Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. At the foot of Burr’s sarcophagus is the monument to his son Aaron Burr Jr., third U.S. vice president and reviled slayer of Alexander Hamilton. Among others buried here are pollster George Gallup, diplomat George F. Kennan, mathematician John Von Neumann, and William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill Robeson, parents of Paul Robeson. A glossy map indicating the graves of more than 70 notables is available at the Greenview Avenue entrance.
408 Orange Road, Montclair
You can spend hours strolling the park-like grounds of this 125-acre, nonsectarian cemetery; I did—and located 18 of the 39 notable gravesites indicated on the cemetery’s imprecise walking-tour map. Rosedale is the final resting place for an array of athletes, artists, war heroes, politicians, captains of industry and victims of industry. Here, you’ll find the grave marker of Colgate-Palmolive founder Samuel Colgate and the stately crypts of A&P founder George Huntington Hartford and Johnson & Johnson founder Frederick W. Johnson Sr. A simple headstone commemorates the Upjohn family of pharmaceutical fame; an unadorned boulder marks the presence of the Merck family. Among others interred here are tennis great Althea Gibson; former New Jersey governor Charles Edison (son of Thomas A. Edison); artists George Inness and George Inness Jr.; and saddest of all, four of the so-called Radium Girls—early-20th-century factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with luminous paint.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery
375 Broadway, Newark
A large, Gothic gate guards the entrance of this 36-acre, urban burial ground, Newark’s oldest remaining cemetery. Beneath elaborate monuments and inside imposing crypts lie the cream of Gilded Age Newark, affluent locals who flaunt their wealth even in death. No map is available, but you can’t miss the domed, marble tomb of Prudential founder John Fairfield Dryden. In the northwest corner, a slender obelisk soars into the leafy canopy, marking the graves of Frederick T. Frelinghuysen (U.S. secretary of state under President Chester A. Arthur) and descendants of his New Jersey political dynasty. Other notables include beer magnate Peter Ballantine; Newark mayor Thomas B. Peddie, who lent his name to the Peddie School; and Mary Stilwell Edison, first wife of Thomas A. Edison.
Johnson Cemetery Memorial Park
Federal Street, Camden
There’s not much to see at this old and unkempt burial ground—and that’s part of its significance. Said to be the resting place of more than 100 African American veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I, the cemetery was long neglected. It had been turned into a city park when, around 2015, an effort was made to salvage the remaining grave markers. About 40 of them were laid out like paving stones in a series of arcs. Today, they are barely legible and generally overlooked—although several park goers were pleased to walk me around and discuss the significance of those whose bones ennoble this small urban oasis.
Mount Hebron Cemetery
851 Valley Road, Montclair
This 30-acre, hillside burial ground is the final resting place for a who’s who of Montclair. Among local luminaries buried here are businessman/philanthropist John McMullen (who brought NHL hockey to New Jersey); golf-course designer Robert Trent Jones; Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker, and other notables: actress Shirley Booth, star of TV’s Hazel (buried under her husband’s family name, Baker); paint pioneer Benjamin Moore (whose footstone could use some touching up); and the songwriter Herman Hupfeld (whose memorable works include, appropriately enough, “As Time Goes By”). A map of notable gravesites is available in the cemetery office.
1640 Haddon Avenue, Camden
The sturdy mausoleum containing the remains of poet Walt Whitman nestles into a hillside down a gravel road not far from the entrance of this 130-acre burial park. You can peek inside the grated doorway to see Whitman’s vault and those of his family members. Other notables buried in Harleigh include labor organizer Ella Reeve Bloor (aka Mother Bloor) and haiku poet Nick Virgilio. The latter’s unusual gravesite consists of five steps leading up to an elegant stone rostrum, on which is engraved one of his best-known haikus: “Lily: out of the water…out of itself.” A map of these and other gravesites is available in the office.
George Washington Memorial Park
234 Paramus Road, Paramus
Established as a whites-only burial ground, this vast cemetery (with a striking Art-Deco entryway and pavilions) was integrated following a 1959 New Jersey Superior Court ruling that the restriction violated “the public policy of the state.” Appropriately, it is now distinguished as the final resting place of such African American notables as New York Yankee great Elston Howard and R&B singer Luther Vandross, who is entombed in a mausoleum just below fellow R&B artist Marvin Isley and to the left of hip-hop producer and pop singer Sylvia Robinson (of Mickey & Sylvia fame). O’Kelly Isley Jr., another of the famous Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout”), rests in a separate mausoleum. Yet another key R&B figure, Clyde McPhatter, founder of the Drifters, is buried here, too, as are rappers Lamont Coleman (aka Big L) and Keith “DJ Kay Slay” Grayson. The office can print out maps for individual gravesites.
Cedar Park and Beth El Cemeteries
735 Forest Avenue, Paramus
Established: Circa 1947
These merged, 20th-century Jewish cemeteries are notable as the resting place of an exceptional collection of entertainment and creative talent. Cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder is buried here, as well as actors Martin Balsam, Lou Jacobi, Julian Beck, Viola Harris and John Marley (Jack Woltz in The Godfather); comedians Myron Cohen and Joe E. Lewis; singer Kitty Kallen; Academy Award-winning composer Sammy Fain; poet Delmore Schwartz; and Nobel laureate author Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose footstone reads, “His greatest joy was work.” The office can print out maps for individual gravesites.
Ken Schlager is the former longtime editor of New Jersey Monthly.Click here to leave a comment