For most people parking lots are no slice of heaven and can sometimes seem worse than any circle of hell, but for others these concrete sprawls are where they spend their eternities. While most cemeteries are constructed as a sacred space separating the worlds of the living and the dead, these two worlds collide when a final resting place is in the path of progress. With much of their surroundings of statues and greenery replaced by hood ornaments and hubcaps, these stranded grave sites stand as a stark reminder of a nearly forgotten and paved-over past.
THE GRAVE OF MARY ELLIS
New Brunswick, New Jersey
photograph by Richard Arthur Norton
Doing laps in a parking lot of movie theater looking for a spot can be expected, but coming upon a tombstone situated seven feet above the concrete surrounded by a gate in the parking lot is much more unexpected.
Situated among the parking spots of the Loews Movie Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is the grave of Mary Ellis, the broken-hearted sea captain’s girl. In the 1790s, Mary Ellis moved to New Brunswick to live with her younger sister and brother-in law. While living there, she fell in love with a former Revolutionary War soldier turned sea captain who pledged his undying love to her and promised a happy life together. However, before long the captain — whose name has been forever lost to history — told Mary he would be leaving on a voyage, but he promised to return to her, leaving his horse in her care. As Mary watched him sail down the Raritan River to the Atlantic, she was unaware this would be the last she would see of her sea captain.
Every day after, Mary would ride the horse to the banks of the river hoping to see him return to her, but that never came to pass. Mary kept the tradition every day, eventually purchasing the piece of land along the water in 1813. The captain never returned. Upon Mary’s death in 1827, she was buried on the land so she could continue looking out over the river for the captain’s return. Over the years, family members of Mary (and rumor has it, the captain’s horse) were added to the graveyard, yet as time wore on redevelopment threatened the final resting place of the Ellis family.
In the 1960s, the trees were removed and the land leveled for a parking lot, and although the buildings have changed and the original tombstone replaced, the gravesite of Mary Ellis has remained forever looking to the Raritan River, still patiently waiting for the return of the sea captain.
THE GRAVE OF JOHN KNOX
photograph by Kim Traynor
Born in the early 1500s in the Haddington area of Scotland, John Knox would grow into a leader of the Protestant Reformation and the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
When religious opinions clashed with Knox’s profession as a clergyman and his personal beliefs, Knox was captured and imprisoned in France, later released to England, and then lived in Europe before finally returning to Scotland in 1559 determined to rid his homeland of Catholicism. He improbably succeeded in his mission and approximately one year later the Reformed Protestant church became the official religion of that country.
Knox was named minister of the main church in Edinburgh — St. Giles — where he was buried upon his death in 1572. Despite his status as a vital part of Scottish history, Knox was not immune to the rising need for space in the growing city, and when the cemetery was paved over Knox’s body remained underneath. Today the gravesite of John Knox, the man who led the theological conversion of Scotland, is marked by a single tile in parking spot #23 at St. Giles Cathedral.
TULLAHASSEE CREEK INDIAN CEMETERY
Sand Springs, Oklahoma
photograph by Rachel K.
Atwoods Plaza in in Sand Springs Oklahoma, has it all. Retail, groceries, and an Indian burial site.
Back when the spot consisted of rolling grassland, the area was populated by the Creek Indians who used this spot as a burial ground between 1883 and 1912. In 1908, philanthropist Charles Page bought 160 acres of this land with the intention of creating a haven for orphaned children officially starting the “modern” history of Sand Springs.
As modernization moved forward, the town and surrounding area of Tulsa County became more heavily populated. In order to meet the subsequent rise in consumerism, the land was bulldozed and paved over in the 1960s to create a parking lot for a strip mall. Stipulations in ownerships protected the cemetery from total destruction, and today the burial ground, containing approximately forty graves, sits in a corner of the parking lot separated from the now-concrete plains by a small sign and white fence.
HILLENDAHL FAMILY CEMETERY
Nestled into the corner of an auto repair shop parking lot in the Spring Branch neighborhood of Houston Texas sits the 1,100 square foot Hillendahl Cemetery.
In the early 1850s, a German immigrant by the name of Heinrich Hillendahl purchased 80 acres of land for the price of $160 and built up a family farm like many other German immigrants in the area. The farmer became very successful and over the years he founded the local Evangelical Lutheran church and expanded his land to 130 acres — including the family plot. The section of land containing the cemetery remained in Hillendahl family hands but the size diminished from 130 acres down to seven before being split up and finally being sold due to high city taxes in the 1970s.
Having been historically designated and surrounded by a fence in 1962, the tiny cemetery has prevailed against development due to the condition that the land would be sold only if the graves remained untouched. Today that request continues to be honored with the 19 members of the Hillendahl family remaining at rest while the world continues to build up all around them.
THE GRAVE OF ARMISTEAD T. THOMPSON
Fairfax County, Virginia
photograph by Martin Prochnik
Located in Fairfax County, Virginia, between a Safeway and Starbucks sits the tiny Thompson Family Cemetery and the headstone of Armistead T. Thompson.
Thompson was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War who died on November 23, 1865, at the age of 27. He’d contracted typhoid while held for 17 months at the notorious Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. Although initially buried on the camp grounds, his remains were collected and brought back home by his family in the 1880s to be buried in the family cemetery. Over time, the Thompson family sold pieces of land and highways expanded, leaving behind this small plot with two visible stones — although rumors are that there are up to 70 members of the Thompson family still buried under the pavement.
Occasionally those passing by will see small Confederate or Virginia flags decorating the grave of this now seemingly out-of-place soldier whose tombstone still tells of his tragic passing:
“In memory of Armistead T. Thompson Son of Lawson T. & Fannie L. Thompson A member of Co. G, 8 Regt. Va. Vols Who died at Point Lookout, Md. a prisoner of war Nov. 23, 1865. After an imprisonment of 17 months. Aged 27 years. Mouldering though thy body be Yet in our dreams thy form we see: Our tears in torrents duly fall O! thee we would but can’t recall. Thou art gone to Christ, thy God He who bought thee with His blood Enabled thee to run the race: Raised thee now to see his face.”
MOUNT MOOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN CEMETERY
West Nyack, New York
West Nyack, New York, is a retail destination with the Palisades Center shopping mall, but in the center of the mall’s expansive parking lots is the Mount Moor African-American Cemetery — the final destination for nearly one hundred people, including veterans of the Civil War, Spanish American War, both World Wars and the Korean War.
Established in 1849, the cemetery was deeded to William H. Moor, Stephen Samuels, and Isaac Williams by James and Jane Benson to serve as an African American cemetery. When ground was broken for the shopping complex in October of 1993, it was determined that the construction would not disturb the graves and that the needed parking would be placed around the three acre cemetery.
The site was registered and has been maintained by Mount Moor Cemetery Association, Inc. since 1940, and in 1994 the location was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
BETTIS FAMILY CEMETERY
photograph by Thomas R Machnitzki
Memphis, Tennessee, has forged a reputation on barbecue, Elvis, and soul, but today one of its founding families has found their final resting place in back of a strip mall containing a grocery and a home improvement store.
The family of Tillman Bettis was the second family to move to Memphis after the 1818 Jackson Purchase granted the United States the land from the Chickasaw Indians. The Bettis family quickly established and it was here that Mary Bettis, the first child of the new settlement, was born. The cemetery was part of the Bettis farm and numerous members of the family were buried in this ground, including Tillman Bettis himself upon his death in 1854.
Like so many, this small cemetery containing the remains of at least eight of the Bettis family was split up and sold off with the land, at one time used by the Convent of the Good Shepherd where the nuns continued to farm as the city grew. Through many years of development the cemetery has remained in place, with the current stores surrounding it vowing to maintain the remaining graves and monument to Tillman Bettis.