Allegheny Cemetery marks 175 years in Lawrenceville
Roger Galbraith has worked at Allegheny Cemetery for nearly 50 years, and he plans to stay for eternity.
“Section 13, Lot 79: That’s where I’ll be buried,” he said, pointing to a green hillside dotted with tombstones.
The 66-year-old grew up in Lawrenceville, just a few blocks away from the 300-acre arboretum that served as his playground and, eventually, his office. As a junior in high school, he took a summer job digging graves with a backhoe and never left.
“It was a love affair from day one,” said Galbraith, who is now the cemetery’s superintendent. “There’s a sacred nature to the work. I feel like the guardian of our heritage. It’s more than burials and trees. I always see it as a microcosm of society.”
This year marks the cemetery’s 175th anniversary.
It’s the oldest institution of its kind west of the Allegheny Mountains and the sixth incorporated cemetery in the United States. A Heritage Fest celebration will be held Sept. 7 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., featuring food trucks, face painting, historical re-enactors, live music, tours, a petting zoo and other events.
There are entrances on Butler Street and Penn Avenue, and the area is divided into 64 sections, connected by 15 miles of roadways. The landscape boasts more than 3,000 trees, two ponds, 119 private mausoleums, two community mausoleums, a crematory, thousands of single graves , statues and obelisks and a trail for cremated remains. The grounds are featured in several movies such as the upcoming Fred Rogers biopic, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
More than 140,000 people are at rest there, with about 800 new arrivals annually.
Notable tenants include musician Stephen Foster, Negro League baseball star Joshua Gibson, Civil War Gen. Alexander Hayes and 28 Pittsburgh mayors. Visitors strolling through the grounds will see recognizable names etched in granite, names that now grace street signs, buildings and even entire neighborhoods: Baum, Clark, Negley, Neville, O’Hara, Vandergrift.
People often leave rolled up newspapers at the grave of Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife.
“Allegheny Cemetery has been, for me, a great fit as I get to share the stories of so many incredible Pittsburghers who have contributed so much, not only to the diverse character of our modern city, but also the greater progress of America,” said Nancy Foley, assistant to the president and director of communications. “Our history is an inheritance we all get to share and Allegheny Cemetery preserves that not only for us, but for the generations to come.”
Since 2010, Foley has been digitizing the cemetery archives and writing its annual newsletter, The Heritage. Fellow history buffs can visit the website, click on the Genealogy link and read, or share, information about the folks buried there.
Galbraith, who leads tour groups through the cemetery, said he learns something about its dead every day.
He’s happy to share their stories, he said, and hopes one day someone will do the same for him.
“Cemeteries are all about the living,” he said. “It’s a place for us to pay our respects and remember. Everybody wants to tell their story. We don’t fear death as much as we fear being forgotten.”