Delorean Time Machine: Union Burial Ground

And now, it’s time for another exciting installment of ‘places where Philadelphians used to be buried.’  Today, we explore the parking lot and primary structure inhabiting the space between 5th and 6th Streets on the south side of Washington Avenue.  According to Find A Grave, this parking lot began operation as an ‘association’ cemetery in 1841, selling plots to the low-income residents of the Southwark area for $10 a pop.  Two decades later, with the onset of hostilities, the cemetery would become a final(ish) resting place for local Civil War veterans.  As shown below in the image taken from Samuel L. Smedley’s 1862 Philadelphia Atlas, it was renamed the Union Burial Ground, alternately known as Sixth Street Union.

In 1862

The carnage of the war would make the next decade the most active in the cemetery’s history.  Below, an image taken from G.M. Hopkins 1875 Philadelphia Atlas shows that the grounds used for burial, already occupying a section of space just across 6th Street, had extended southward to Federal Street.

By 1875

By the end of the war, numerous Civil War veterans and their families had been interred in this location, totaling roughly 2000 graves.  According to Roots Web, the cemetery officially closed its gates to new residents in 1906, consequently forming the Union Burial Ground Society to handle its assets.  The photo below, dated by Find a Grave as being sometime in the 1950s, lends some suggestion as to how these assets were handled.

Not so well, apparently

As with other neighborhood-bound burial sites that we’ve discussed (Lafayette CemeteryRonaldson’s Cemetery), the hallowed ground was greeted by the 20th century with neglect, vandalism and disrepair.  The insertion of I-95 and Delaware Ave. through the Southwark neighborhood in the 1960s helped to hasten the cemetery’s demise.  The photo below, taken from Temple University Library’s Digital Collections, shows the cemetery in 1966, badly in need of some weeding.

PHA towers in the background in 1966

In 1970, the land was sold to a supermarket.  The photo below, also taken from the Temple University Library, shows a construction worker in the midst of the unenviable task of exhuming and repackaging the deceased.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio

The dead were subsequently reburied in the Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, PA.  Today, the 1st Oriental Supermarket that stands on the lot demonstrates Southwark’s continued appeal to immigrant populations, serving in recent years as an important destination for the city’s Cambodian and Vietnamese residents.


The image below shows the remains of a single wall recalling the plot’s century-long service to the deceased.  The holes running along the top of the wall on 6th Street show where the wrought-iron fence once stood.

The wall is all that remains
Where the fence once stood

–David Tomar

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