When imagining a cemetery, one likely won’t think of it as a place to catch a play, or a concert, attend an arts and crafts market, see a movie, or pet the occasional yard maintenance goat. Graveyards usually aren’t a hotspot for birdwatching, beekeeping, and gardening to area youth. But at Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, located at 435 Newark Avenue in the Bergen Hill area of Jersey City, visitors are invited to participate in all of these activities. Read on for a look into the highly unique and happening graveyard, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery.
A Brief History of the Cemetery
The Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery is the oldest established cemetery in New Jersey. It was incorporated in 1831 in response to a deadly cholera epidemic. The original grounds were surveyed to include 347 18′ x 18’ family plots and 12′ x 18’ vault lots divided by paths built for strolling. Initially, the gravesites were each privately owned by the plot holders. Spread across six hilly acres, it was then notable as one of the first garden-style cemeteries.
The cemetery has features of the rural cemetery movement of the 1850s, in which the careful landscape design featured shade trees, decorative plants, an iron gate, a Victorian greenhouse, and a caretaker’s house. Its dramatic appeal made the cemetery a destination that, at one time, required visitors to procure tickets for admission. Those features are hard to find today amongst the yards of invasive Japanese knotweed and poison ivy — and yet, the gnarly romance of the place is ever-present.
The People Buried at the Cemetery
William Colgate — the illustrious English-American soap industrialist who founded Colgate-Palmolive in 1806, the company that subsequently marked Jersey City with the iconic Colgate Clock — was one of the earliest people of note to be buried there. The Colgate family vault was later reinterred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. We still have the clock, though.
The accomplished Charles Ferson Durant was buried there in 1873. Durant is best known for making the first American hot air balloon ascension at the Battery, New York, in 1833. He repeated the feat 14 times after. A polymath, he made headlines for his adventures both above the clouds and beneath the soil where he collected some 73 specimens of macroalgae, about which he authored several scientific publications, including his magnum opus, Algae and Corallines of the Bay + Harbor of New York.
Visitors to the cemetery can pay their respects to the enterprising 19th-century photographer, Egbert Guy Fowx, whose collodion wet-plate photography of the New York 7th Regiment — the “Gallant 7th” — can be found today in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and the New York Public Library.
Veterans of the Civil War and almost every US war since are identified amongst the headstones. Symbols of Freemasonry and various religious affiliations — as well as names that reveal myriad places of origin — show the wide appeal of the cemetery historically.
Quite a number of those interred in the cemetery are unnamed mysteries, though efforts are ongoing to learn as much as can be uncovered about the stories buried there. Decades ago, volunteers clearing away dense undergrowth stumbled upon a stone staircase that led up a hill to a rusted iron door set into the hillside where they discovered a marble-walled antechamber that had been undisturbed for over a century. History sleuths have a worthy project awaiting them in the records and artifacts that remain — as of yet — unresolved.
Events + Happenings at Harsimus Cemetery
There’s a lot going down at the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery these days. The volunteers who are working to restore, preserve, and maintain the grounds, caretaker house, and historic monuments are very creative in their programming. This is really not your typical cemetery. For one thing, this cemetery has an official entertainment director. Anthony “Dancing Tony“ Susco, a staple of the Jersey City art and music scene who runs social events for Groove on Grove, organizes concerts for the cemetery.
A local 4-H organization and Jersey City birdwatching advocates welcome young people for all kinds of great happenings on the cemetery grounds, from bird identification days to a major garden project that has kids cultivating vegetables in raised beds at the base of the caretaker building. Beekeeper Simran Nazareth brought two bee hives to the cemetery grounds. She plans to sell Harsimus Cemetery honey at future events.
Everyone is welcome to help out at the cemetery “Wake and Rake” clean-ups that happen each Saturday, with gates opening at 9AM and volunteers welcome at whatever time they may arrive.
Ghost of Uncle Joe concerts, Oddity Markets, and a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show are an October staple. Those Halloween season events have also happened during the summer, and there have been community movie screenings held on-site as well.
The cemetery enjoys membership within the Jersey City Park Coalition and hopes to gain state and national landmark preservation status. There is a lot of fun to be had at the cemetery, along with an impressive amount of historical research and physical restoration. Cemetery board director Michele Lamonica-Egar urges everyone to come and get involved. But, while there, she says, “Please, do not lean on the stones!”