'There Are No Ghosts in God's Acre,' Or Are There?
The oldest cemetery in Bethlehem is the final resting place for 2,600 Moravians.
In the heart of Downtown Bethlehem, there are three acres of land and 2600 bodies buried on a plot of land on Market between Main and New Streets known as God’s Acre, a remnant of the 18th Century Moravian settlement that founded Bethlehem.
With that many tombs, there must be some ghosts in this graveyard, right?
Kathy Zoshak, the guide for my Death and Dying Tour said, “There are no ghosts in God’s Acre, all Moravians go home to Christ when they die.”
If that is true, someone should tell Francis “Daddy” Thomas, who has been on a historically long detour.
Thomas was interred in 1822 to his current bodily residence in God’s Acre near Bishop Siedel and Bishop Ettwein near the left corner at the top of the slope. Thomas asked to be buried next to the Bishops so that those frequenting their graves would also see his.
“Daddy” was highly social in his early life, delivering mail to the Moravian Girls’ School and making his rounds in the city proper. He was the town tour guide and a Councilman. In death as he was in life, Thomas continues his rounds and is one of the most famous ghosts of Bethlehem, most often seen at the Hotel Bethlehem.
While there are no ghosts in this graveyard, contrary to the stories I was told as a child, God’s Acre is well worth a walk through.
As a guide, Zoshak pointed out a lot of details in the death practices of the early Moravians. For instance, Moravians did not embalm their dead. Bodies were placed in the Corpse House on the dead tray, awaiting burial. If it was winter, some bodies might wait until the ground thawed.
I notice that the burial plots that had been absorbed into the earth were about the same height off of the ground. “Rich, poor, high and low all buried together and all plots are flat buried according to their choir,” echoing the strong Moravian belief that all are equal in death as in life.
A choir was a determined by gender, age and marital status so different parts of the cemetery are designated for men, women and children. There are Indians, Africans and Moravian men and women buried side by side.
“Some are more equal than others,” said Zoshak. Juliana Nitschmann Hubetland, buried in 1751, holds a place of honor as the Mother of Pennsylvania and her marker is raised about two extra inches from the ground, placed awkwardly in the middle of a walking path. She was married to Bishop John Nitschmann. A record of her leibenslauf, life story, can be read on the Bethlehem Digital History Project.
In fact, each person buried has a leibenslauf that can be retrieved either through the digital record or through the Moravian archives.
“The cemetery is virtually untouched, there is such a energy of peace,” said Zoshak.
The Hiistoric Bethlehem Partnership offers the Death and Dying Tours Tuesday through Thursdays and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. as well as Friday and Saturday at 6:00 p.m. starting from the Moravian Museum.