Berks County’s oldest wooden grave marker celebrated with hand-crafted replacement

Berks County’s oldest and last remaining wooden grave marker will be celebrated with the dedication of a newly-created wooden grave marker Wednesday, Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard, as part of a collaboration with Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center. This new grave marker with replace the original 19th century grave marker that stood for more than 125 years in the historic cemetery behind Bern Reformed Church in Bern Township, Berks County.

The Trustees of the Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard donated the original marker to the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, where it will be permanently preserved as part of the museum’s cultural collection.

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The original marker was carefully documented and removed Dec. 10, 2020, by graveyard specialists Michael Emery of the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission and Patrick Donmoyer of Kutztown University. The removal was timely, as the original grave marker had become delicate and unstable, and a heavy snowstorm blew through the region less than a week after the marker’s removal to safety.

Photos courtesy of Kutztown University: (left) Original marker (right) Replacement marker.

“We’re grateful that the center stepped forward to preserve this fragile piece of history while giving us a replacement,” said James M. Beidler, one of the cemetery company’s trustees. “While we don’t currently know the name attached to this marker, we will continue to research to see if the deceased can be identified. It is possible that the individual was a Civil War soldier, since a flag marker has been placed at the burial site and the estimated time period of burial in the 1890s was a time when many soldiers from the conflict passed.”

Although no traces of a name are visible on the heavily weathered, original grave marker to identify the burial, the marker is a reminder of earlier times in Pennsylvania when wooden markers were a common sight at rural cemeteries throughout the commonwealth.

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According to local Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, permanent stones were not placed on gravesites until a full year had passed, allowing time for the ground to settle to that the stone could be placed on stable ground. Temporary wooden markers featuring painted inscriptions often stood for years until either a permanent headstone could be commissioned from a local stone carver, or if no headstone was created, the wooden markers rotten away after many years; in this case, after more than a century had passed.

The new replacement grave marker was created using traditional handwork techniques. The species of the original wooden marker was determined to be old-growth clear white pine by timber specialist Michael Cuba of Transom Preservation Consultants in Bucks County, and a suitable plank of dense-growth white pine heartwood measuring 14x43x2.5 inches was milled by Daniel Aruta of Pinecraft Log Homes in Oley.

The wood had to be carefully dried over the course of a year before it was hand-planed and cut to match the original lunate shape with a rounded molding profile. Kutztown University students Jack Maccari, Emma Ketterer and Kay Hernandez assisted with the finish planning and shaping of the marker.

Emery and Donmoyer have surveyed the earliest cemeteries in Berks County, as well as the regions of Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, and specialize in documenting the early stones as well as funerary practices and folklore.

Donmoyer describes that All Saints Day, traditionally observed Nov. 1, was a time when local communities remembered their departed loved ones and put this into practice by tending gravesites. The replacement and dedication of the early grave marker at Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard is one part of keeping the tradition alive for future generations.

The dedication of the new wooden grave marker will take place 1 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 1, Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard, 3196 Bernville Road, Leesport, PA 19533.

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