Germantown Then & Now: Cemeteries Reveal Stories of the Past

Today we call all places where people are buried cemeteries, but it is actually a fairly recent term that first appeared in America in the 1830s with the first corporate Memorial Parks. Before that there were burial grounds—municipal burial grounds, churchyard burial grounds and family burial grounds. Burial grounds are sacred places. They mark where our ancestors lie, commemorate the special, and memorialize the unique, but they are also primary sources that can tell us about birth and death dates, where a person lived, who was related to whom, and social customs surrounding death and burial.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when Montgomery County was still frontier or at least very rural, people died they were buried on thier property when they died. Almost every farm had its own burial ground. In towns and urban areas, the dead were buried on church or town property in churchyards or graveyards. As cities and towns grew, these places for the dead grew overcrowded and at the same time people began to realize that decaying matter spread disease. So, the burial grounds had to move outside the city. Official Cemeteries were established outside cities and towns beginning in the 1830s. These were either voluntary associations or private, often for-profit, corporations. The organization would purchase the land then sell burial plots, keeping a trust fund for future upkeep. Sometimes these cemeteries were created as parks, landscaped with exotic trees and flowers and having wandering paths, benches and gazebos creating a pastoral atmosphere for the “contemplation of death and life.” Lovers strolled and families picnicked in these park cemeteries.

As family farms were sold and older members went to their own rest in one of the new cemeteries, many family burial grounds were lost to the ravages of nature, or, sometimes, to the bulldozer. With all of the development in Germantown we have lost many of our small family burial grounds and all of the slave burial grounds. Currently we have four church burial grounds, one modern cemetery, and five existing family burial grounds within the Germantown Planning Area.

Many of the older tombstones have artful sculptures, symbols and interesting verses. Some of the more common symbols from the Victorian era are: rose for purity; rosebud or lamb for innocence often found on the stone of a baby or child; oak leaf for remembrance, laurel branch for honor. Metal medallions mark the graves of veterans, a different one for each war.

Historic Burial Sites in Germantown

The oldest church cemetery, and also the largest, is Trinity Presbyterian at Rt. 355 and Neelsville Church Road. It contains more than 500 graves, the oldest dating to 1849. The most famous person buried here is Guy Vernon Thompson, the last man hanged in Montgomery County. He was convicted of killing a man and his two step-children with dynamite in 1923 in Germantown. Also buried here is Hartman Richter, cousin of Lincoln Assassination conspirator George Adzerodt, who unknowing harbored the fugitive and in whose home he was arrested.

The Germantown Baptist Cemetery at Riffleford Road and Germantown Road dates back to 1881 and has more than 100 graves. The mausoleum of Eldridge Bowman and his wife dominates the churchyard. Eldridge was one of three brothers who built the mill next to the railroad station in Germantown. You can also find the grave of Nathan Page, one of the men responsible for the capture of George Atzerodt, and the plot of the Metz family, also involved in the Atzerodt story.

The Trinity Methodist Cemetery at the northwest corner of Rt. 118 and Clopper Road holds about a dozen graves and dates back to when the Church was formed in the 1860s. The church split into a Northern Church and a Southern Church after the Civil War, and each built its own church in Germantown in 1902. The old church was abandoned and the site is now under Germantown Road. The Methodist Cemetery is now overgrown with brambles and weeds and is inaccessible except by walking through the football field behind the Germantown Recreation Center.

The grounds of the Asbury Methodist Cemetery on Black Rock Road are well kept, but many of the tombstones are fallen over or missing.  It most likely contains more than 100 graves. Some of the earlier graves were only marked with an upright field stone, now fallen over. The first church here was built in the 1870s by the African-American community of Brownstown, named for William Brown who donated the land for the cemetery. This church burned in the 1950s and was rebuilt by the congregation.

Two of family burial grounds in Germantown have been preserved and their upkeep is included in the homeowners association covenant, thanks to the efforts of the Germantown Historical Society.

The Basil Waters burial ground is next to 12509 Hawks Nest Lane in Milestone. Here you will find the remains of the Waters family who lived in the house Pleasant Fields on Milestone Manor Lane. Here you will find the graves of Anne Magruder Waters and her son Robert, age 9, and her daughter Susannah, age 18, who all died within days of each other in a Black Measles epidemic in 1824.

The Mobley/Magers/Arnold burial ground is next to 18633 Village Fountain Drive in Fountain Hills. This graveyard  is surrounded by a metal fence and contains a few tombstones, but the two dozen or more graves extended beyond this fenced area before the bulldozers came in. Many of the graves were marked only by upright fieldstones in rows.

Many family burial grounds in Germantown are in need of care. If you are interested in helped, please contact the Germantown Historical Society. For more on the history of cemeteries: The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History by Charles David Sloane.

Susan Soderberg is the president of the Germantown Historical Society.

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