Preserving the past: Berks County’s oldest grave marker gets new life

In a celebration of Berks County’s history, the dedication of a newly-created wooden grave marker took place on Wednesday, Nov. 1 (All Saints Day) at Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard.

This event marked the replacement of the county’s oldest and last remaining wooden grave marker, which had stood in the historic cemetery behind Bern Reformed Church in Bern Township for over 125 years. The project was a collaborative effort with Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center.

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The original 19th-century grave marker was donated to the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University by the Trustees of the Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard. The marker was carefully documented and removed on Dec. 10, 2020, by graveyard specialists Michael Emery of the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission and Patrick Donmoyer of Kutztown University. This removal proved timely, as the original grave marker had become delicate and unstable.

James M. Beidler, one of the cemetery company’s trustees, expressed gratitude for the preservation efforts. He mentioned that while the name attached to the marker remains unknown, ongoing research may lead to its identification. It is possible that the individual buried there was a Civil War soldier, as a flag marker had been placed at the burial site, and the estimated time of burial in the 1890s coincided with the era when many Civil War veterans died.

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Despite the heavily weathered original grave marker not bearing any visible name, it serves as a reminder of an earlier era in Pennsylvania when wooden markers were a common sight in rural cemeteries throughout the state.

According to local Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, permanent stones were not placed on gravesites until a year had passed, allowing the ground to settle for stability. Temporary wooden markers featuring painted inscriptions often remained for years until a permanent headstone could be commissioned, or they simply rotted away after decades, in this case, over a century.

The replacement grave marker was meticulously crafted using traditional handwork techniques. Timber specialist Michael Cuba of Transom Preservation Consultants identified the species of the original wooden marker as old-growth clear white pine.

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 underwent a careful year-long drying process before being 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 played essential roles in the finishing and shaping of the new marker.

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

They highlighted that All Saints Day, traditionally observed on Nov. 1, was a time for local communities to remember their departed loved ones and tend to gravesites. The replacement and dedication of the early grave marker at Bern Cemetery and Historic Graveyard represented a meaningful effort to keep this tradition alive for future generations.

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