Being Dead in Pittsburgh

This spring on the Montour Trail I snapped a photo of a wild turkey carcass still suspended in a tree. It is a reminder that not only was Les Nessman right, Turkeys do indeed fly to get to their nightly roost, occasionally that roost is their final resting place. While most dead Pittsburgh turkeys come hurtling down at night, the rare bird remains for us to see as we pass.

There are many reasons why Pittsburgh is a unique and compelling city. Pittsburgh's dead also have unique and compelling stories to tell, as I found out conducting research on German immigrants to the area. Perhaps it is simply the geography that has the greatest influence on both the living and the dead.  The combination of ancient mountains towards the western lea of Pennsylvania, plenty of water provided by the numerous rivers, and the natural rock resources of the earth have given us coal, iron, steel, and today a hilly landscape that affords few tracts of flat earth. 

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This lack of wide swaths of flat earth contributes to fewer highway lanes, fewer sprawling car dealerships, and fewer malls and big-box stores. 

It also means that space it at a premium and we often build upon that which was here before, even when we build upon the dead. That makes sense in the downtown area. For example, the corner of 6th ave and Smithfield was formerly a cemetery, now it is a Brooks Brothers.

Immigrants in the 19th century found that neighborhoods were often defined by geography. A hill or river strictly delineates a neighborhood and when it came to burying the dead, you often buried locally. While some cemeteries have been maintained, many cemeteries in the Pittsburgh area have simply been 'converted' into other uses or have been left to be discovered by construction equipment. It shouldn't be surprising then that in 1987 an expansion of route 28 uncovered 727 bodies from a defunct cemetery right on the north shore of the Allegheny river. In fact, there are numerous forgotten cemeteries in the Pittsburgh area.

Often cemeteries that have been disinterred were converted into athletic facilities for some reason. The Cowley Athletic field of Troy hill is a good example of this. 

Sometimes the woods simply take over. An older resident of Troy Hill told me that bodies were also buried at this wooded location

Through property acquisition and expansion, these forgotten cemeteries find new purposes, perhaps to be discovered later. The University of Pittsburgh acquired the grounds to a cemetery years back.  Where are the bodies? Only the back-hoe knows. 

If you live in Pittsburgh, it is interesting to look at these old maps to see where your neighborhood burial ground was or still may be. You will be surprised to find how common it is to have a forgotten cemetery in your back yard or that the graveyard has been repurposed. 
Beyond starting your own neighborhood archeology project, a must for any resident or visitor of Pittsburgh seeking to bring out the dead is truly the best kept secret we have: St. Anthony's Chapel.  St. Anthony's Chapel houses the second largest collection of relics in the world behind the Vatican. There are 4,000-5,000 relics there, among them the complete remains of Saint Demetrius, the skull of Saint Theodore, and the tooth of Saint Anthony of Padua.

I found most of these treasures in my own back yard by comparing old maps to current maps, a fairly traditional research practice. While I limited myself to the exploration of German immigrants, one could apply this method to any immigrant group in the city. I collected my locations online and share the research with others. Have fun bringing out the dead.