Pittsburgh Cemeteries Are Alive with History

Nobody likes to think about dying and being buried.  But if you can put aside that natural aversion to death, we’re sure you’ll find the cemeteries around Pittsburgh both interesting and educational.  A visit to one of these sacred places can be a great excursion, providing lessons in history, architecture, local customs, and religious beliefs and practices.

Pittsburgh’s Burial Mounds

McKeesRocksOne of the oldest cemeteries in the area is the Indian burial mound in McKees Rocks. Located on an industrial site, the mound is approximately 2,300 years old and is believed to be the burial grounds for the Adena people who inhabited the area between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D.  Later the Hopewell people used it.  The mound, which is 85-feet wide and lies near the Ohio River, was granted a historical marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 2002. Interest in the Indian burial mound dates back decades; in the late 1800s, Andrew Carnegie had the mound partially excavated.  Thirty-three skeletons along with stone, copper, and shell artifacts were unearthed.  Those artifacts were on display at the Carnegie Museum until the late 1970s, when they were put into storage.  There is a move afoot to return the Indian remains to the burial mound and have the area designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Also within walking distance of the banks of Pittsburgh’s three rivers is another Indian burial ground.  The first settlers who came here found a small knoll near what is today Sixth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh.  This hill had been used by Native Americans as a burial ground because it was elevated enough and far enough from the confluence of the three rivers to protect the site from flood waters.  Each new group of settlers that came to the area also buried their dead here.  Nearly 4,000 people were buried on the knoll at one time. Today, only approximately 150 graves remain in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh between Trinity Cathedral and First Presbyterian Church.  Notables buried there are Red Pole, who was Chief of the Shawnee Nation, and Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, who was the city’s first physician and founder of the University of Pittsburgh.

Allegheny Cemetery

If Indian burial mounds are the most primitive of final resting places in the area, then Allegheny Cemetery, located at 4734 Butler Street in Lawrenceville, is the most opulent and stately.  Founded in 1844, Allegheny Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries west of the Allegheny Mountains.  With 300 acres and 15 miles of roadways, it is one of the largest cemeteries as well.  More than 117,000 people have been laid to rest in Allegheny Cemetery, and each year 1,000 more are interred there.  Many notables have been laid to rest in the cemetery.

Among the entertainers buried in the non-denominational grounds are songwriter Stephen Foster (the Father of American Music), Don Brockett (“Chef Brockett” of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), jazz musician Stanley Turrentine, and actress/singer Lillian Russell. Negro Leagues’ great Josh Gibson, founder of Mellon Bank Thomas Mellon, and Harry K. Thaw who was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit as well as famous for murdering Stanford White, are buried there as well. In addition, numerous congressmen, former mayors of Pittsburgh, and war heroes’ graves can be found in Allegheny Cemetery along with the unidentified remains of the 54 victims of the 1862 Allegheny Arsenal explosion.  Many of the names gracing the streets, schools, and parks of Pittsburgh have their antecedents buried in Allegheny Cemetery, such as Negley, Oliver, Neville, McKnight, Denny, and Swisshelm.

Many come to visit Allegheny Cemetery to take in the scenery.  It is one of the most peaceful and picturesque places in the city as it abounds in natural beauty.  The architecture of the Butler Street gate area as well as the wide array of bronze, granite, and marble sculptures enchant those who have an eye for beauty.

Calvary Catholic Cemetery

 The Catholic counterpart to Allegheny Cemetery is Calvary Catholic Cemetery in the Greenfield and Hazelwood
neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.  In 1886, the Diocese of Pittsburgh founded the cemetery. As of 2008, more than 152,000 people have been buried in the 200-acre grounds.  Entertainers Frank Gorshin, Mary Lou Williams, and Gene Lyons are interred there as well as various congressmen and several Pittsburgh mayors.  Hall of Fame boxer Billy Conn and several major league baseball players have been laid to rest there too.

The National Cemetery of the Alleghenies

When you think of military cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery most often springs to mind, but the Pittsburgh area is also home to a large military cemetery, The National Cemetery of the Alleghenies.  The 292-acre national cemetery is reserved for burial for veterans and their families.  Located 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, The National Cemetery of the Alleghenies began burials in August of 2005.

Allegheny Observatory

Some noted Pittsburghers’ graves do not reside in cemeteries.  Renowned astronomer, John Brashear, and his wife, Phoebe, had their ashes interred at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park on Pittsburgh’s North Side.  Their crypt below the observatory is inscribed with the words:
Riverview Park
“Though my soul may set in darkness;
it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.”

Green Burials in Pittsburgh

It seems that cemeteries and burial practices are reverting back to simpler methods.  Recently, Pennsylvania’s first “green burial only” cemetery, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, opened in Penn Hills.  The “natural” or “green” burial employs no toxic chemical embalming fluids.  The casket, if used, is made from biodegradable materials and the body is buried close to the ground’s surface so that as the body decomposes naturally it provides nourishment for plant growth.  The grave markers can either be native stones laid flat on the ground or the grave can be marked with shrubs or trees.  Several local funeral homes have obtained green certification and others are in the process of obtaining the certification.

If this more natural way of interring bodies becomes more acceptable, the residents living in the area will have come full circle, taking up the burial practices of their predecessors the Native Americans who lived here centuries ago.

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