Entombed in Our Walls

Elizabeth Van Dyke Pease ashes urn in niche behind Memorial Plaque in PH vestibule (1).jpeg

This is a startling sequel to my last post about the Furness Burial Cloister: I present to you yet more burials I just found---in the walls of the transept and nearby vestibule! The story begins with this fuzzy old snapshot.

The buried founding community integrated into the Furness transept floor, it turns out, gained companions in more recent times: in cinerary urns embedded in a transept wall and just beyond, behind memorial plaques.

We discovered them by chance. Looking for something else, I landed upon snapshots like the one shown here, of a cinerary urn in a niche behind a modest memorial plaque removed to repaint the wall just outside the former rector’s office in the Parish House. A label confirms the remains correspond to the woman commemorated in the plaque. She is Elizabeth Van Dyke Pease who, according to St. Stephen’s burial record, died at age thirty-seven of pneumonia in January 1896. Since I found these snapshots in an envelope with documents for the Parish House’s grill gate added in 1992, I’m guessing that’s the date of the photos of the find. 

The story of cremation by this time is even more intriguing. Today a common alternative to traditional burial (cheaper, less space occupied), cremation was new and controversial in the 1890s. Churches resisted this ancient practice, as they had for centuries, on theological grounds. The breakthrough: Lodovico Brunetti’s model of a new crematory apparatus displayed in the Vienna World’s Fair of 1873 which found many admirers in powerful medical and public health circles--including Queen Victoria’s physician. That very year Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne adapted the Brunetti design, for the first time in the United States, in Washington, PA. By the 1890s the Philadelphia Directories listed several crematories and Cremation Societies, though not the one identified on Miss Van Dyke Pease’s urn, the Washington Lane Crematory on Germantown “Road” (coincidentally near family residences?).

Despite the ongoing hostility of church authorities, the rector who officiated at Miss Van Dyke Pease’s funeral at St. Stephen’s, The Rev. Dr. Samuel McConnell (a famously vocal progressive), supported church rites and burial for cremains. They kept departed congregants and family close by when church space was no longer available for traditional burial. The proof: Long after he retired, the Vestry Minutes tell us, Dr. McConnell requested that the cremains of his sons Elliott and Guthrie be placed within the transept wall, similar to Miss Van Dyke Pease’s. And they were, behind memorial plaques on the west wall. Also like Miss Van Dyke Pease’s, they make no reference to the remains within. Dr. McConnell, according to our burial records, was also cremated upon his death in 1939. His ashes may well rest between his sons' behind his memorial plaque. We see all three in the lowest row flanking the door into the Burd Memorial Chapel.

It moves me to think of this modern clergyman’s family presiding, behind their memorials, over their earlier community revealed in the floor.

Could there be more such niches behind the other plaques in the church?


-Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s historian and curator

Suzanne Glover Lindsay