MONONGAHELA – There was a time when visitors to historic Monongahela Cemetery brought more with them than flowers to plant on graves for Memorial Day.
Families up until the 1960s packed their children in their cars along with picnic lunches to spend a day enjoying the scenery among the graves at the cemetery, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
“As a child of the 1950s, this was more than just a cemetery,” said Susan Bowers, president of Monongahela Area Historical Society.
“This was a gathering place,” Bowers said Monday, when the cemetery held a program recognizing its 2001 listing on the National Register of Historic Places and kicking off a weeklong series of unusual events marking its birthday.
The Pennsylvania State University mascot, the Nittany Lion, is expected to stop by this week to visit the grave of its creator, Harrison Denning “Joe” Mason of Monongahela, who came up with the character in 1904. Local musicians forming a band named Too Many Tubas will perform a concert in the cemetery at 7 p.m. Friday. And, the cemetery will host a free picnic of hot dogs and baked beans from 1 to 4 Saturday as a nod to the past, said John “Jack” Cattaneo, a member of the cemetery’s board of directors.
The cemetery was organized at a Good Friday town meeting April 3, 1863, when local leaders wrongly believed the city along the Monongahela Cemetery would suddenly need a place to bury soldiers killed in the Civil War. The city, then, also was growing rapidly and wanted a nondenominational cemetery opened to all members of the community.
Picnics soon became a popular activity there because people didn’t have many other options for leisure activities, Cattaneo said.
“Remember the horse and buggy days?” he said, noting muddy roads built then were often impassable. “When people visited the cemetery, it wasn’t on their way to Giant Eagle. You couldn’t just go to McDonald’s, so they packed lunches.”
Prior to about 1830, most bodies in the United States were either buried on family farms or beside churches where few people took into consideration park-like landscaping or guaranteed perpetual car of graves, said Terry Necciai, an architect and Monongahela native who also spoke at Monday’s event.
“They wanted to get people out of older style burial grounds,” said Necciai, discussing the cemetery’s founders.
Monongahela hired Pittsburgh architect John Chislett to create a Gothic-style setting with circular roads and a large variety of trees, obscured from the neighborhood. The grounds later were expanded with a lawn park addition into an 173-acre cemetery, which now contains more than 35,000 graves just off Route 88 near the Monongahela Bridge.
Cattaneo said people in decades past did not allow their children to walk on graves and would have thought it highly inappropriate to eat next to tombstones.
“There was a place reserved for picnics,” he said.
And, to make sure no one spills ketchup on a grave Saturday, the cemetery will set up a tent for picnic guests on a grassy strip containing no graves behind the cemetery office.