Before digging a grave, you have to make sure the ground isn’t already occupied. John Wilson, the caretaker at Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, has a tool for this very purpose: a thin metal bar, about four feet long, shaped like an upside-down L.
A funeral was scheduled for Feb. 3, and around 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, Wilson was testing the plot, jabbing the bar into the ground at different places to see if there was anything already buried there.
Some older occupants of the graveyard were buried “two by two,” he said, “one on top of the other.” Sometimes, headstones do double duty: bodies are buried both in front and in back, and names are carved onto both sides. Wilson has dug up shingles, fragments of caskets, shells, arrowheads. Occasionally he finds bones.
“(I) put them back in,” he said. “Got to respect them, no matter who it is.”
Digging graves is only one of Wilson’s many jobs at Jersey City and Harsimus. From the house on cemetery grounds, where he has lived for the past 10 years, Wilson, 57, has overseen the cemetery’s transformation from overgrown, abandoned ruin into the thriving community space it is today.
“We’d be lost without John,” said Eileen Markenstein, the cemetery’s president. “He does so much.”
In 2008, after years of disrepair, a coalition of people who owned plots in Jersey City and Harsimus gathered together and and elected a new board of trustees. Markenstein, the newly elected president, was faced with the daunting task of turning the place around.
The six-acre cemetery had gone months with no formal leadership; burial records and nearly $100,000 in maintenance funds had gone missing. Waist-high grass swallowed tombstones and the house was “despicable,” Wilson said. Thieves had stolen all the copper piping in the house, and the floors in the home were littered with liquor bottles and hypodermic needles.
Decades of trains passing on the tracks down the hill had shaken the building so much that the walls had cracked; when it rained, water seeped through.
“We had no idea yet how much of an undertaking this was,” Markenstein said.
To clean up the grounds, the board organized volunteer cleanups. One of those who volunteered was Wilson. After some months volunteering every Saturday, cleaning the grounds, maintaining machinery, and digging graves, the cemetery’s new administrators offered him the caretaker position.
It was a lucky break. At the time, Wilson said, he was perilously close to becoming homeless; the rent in his Downtown apartment was being hiked and he couldn’t afford to move into a new apartment. After the herculean task of fixing up the house, Wilson moved in and took over the day-to-day maintenance of the cemetery.
He led teams of volunteers to clean up the grounds: cutting the grass, trimming foliage, chopping down old trees, disposing of moldering flags and flowers.
“You couldn’t see none of these headstones when I first came here,” he said. “(I) had to weed whack everything.”
In his 10 years there, Wilson has overseen the cemetery’s transformation into the mostly tidy place it is today. The work keeps him busy. He maintains the grounds, fixes the machinery, and keeps the house in good condition.
In summer, the cemetery rents goats and sheep, who eat weeds and keep the grass short. Wilson takes care of the animals and feeds the plump graveyard cats. He helps with the cemetery’s many events, from Christmas tree lightings to Arbor Day celebrations.
And he digs graves.
Burials at Jersey City and Harsimus happen only a few times a year. The cemetery no longer sells plots, and funerals take place only in space that was sold years ago. The ground is just too crowded, said Markenstein, who estimates that about 90,000 people are buried there.
Markenstein believes that Jersey City and Harsimus, which was founded in 1829, is the oldest private cemetery in the country. But its history goes back even farther. American and British troops battled over the land during the Revolutionary War, and the grounds are home to a ruined munitions bunker built during the War of 1812.
Hundreds of Civil War soldiers are buried there. During cleanup events after Markenstein took over as president, volunteers uncovered a number of World War I-era artifacts on the grounds.
“This is a treasure chest of hidden secrets,” she said.
In practical terms, this means that you never know what you’ll find when you start digging. But on Saturday, after probing the ground with his metal bar, Wilson was satisfied that the ground was vacant. With shovel blades, Wilson and some volunteers cut lines in the ground in the shape of a casket, prying out chunks of grass.
“You got to break the roots first,” he said. “Once you get the top done, it’ll start to get easier.”
Sharing a home with so many dead bodies, one might expect a few close encounters with ghosts. Wilson described the cemetery as “occupied, not haunted.”
In the early days in the house, he said, he would sometimes hear children’s voices from the crawl space upstairs, saying it sounded like “a tea party going.” One night during his first winter there, he said, he spotted a man standing in the snow on the hillside, smoking a cigar. By the time he arrived to investigate, the man had vanished.
“There was no footprints in the snow or nothing,” he said. “But I could still smell the tobacco.”
About a foot and a half down, Wilson and the other volunteer gravediggers hit a layer of reddish clay. The digging had gone smoothly, uncovering nothing more interesting than a few scraps of metal and a constellation of small white seashells. Indigenous peoples used to eat them, Wilson said, collecting them from the Hudson River, which used to be closer before hundreds of years of development had filled in land.
Does Wilson ever get existential, living among so many reminders of the inevitable passage of time?
No, he said. He’s too busy.
“It’s a handful in here,” he said. “There’s always something that has to be done.”