June 5, 2024

Guided Tour of Princeton Cemetery Marks Completion of Preservation Project

By Anne Levin

When Nassau Presbyterian Church launched an effort to preserve and digitize the records of Princeton Cemetery, which is owned by the church, those involved never imagined it would take a full 10 years to complete.

But a decade has passed, and the mapping, photographing, and creation of an interactive, web-based record is now complete. To mark this milestone, the church is hosting a guided tour of the historic graveyard on Witherspoon Street on Saturday, June 15, at 10 a.m.

“The cemetery is the final resting place of most of the presidents of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, as well as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, scholars and theologians, veterans beginning with the Revolutionary War, novelists, philanthropists, a Nobel Laureate, and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, as well as many others who have called the Princeton area home,” reads a release from the church.

The long list of notables includes U.S. President Grover Cleveland, U.S Vice President Aaron Burr, signer of the Declaration of Independence John Witherspoon, astronomer Lyman Spitzer, mathematician John von Neumann, physicist Eugene Paul Wigner, New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, and bookshop owner Sylvia Beach, to name a few.

“We felt we had an obligation to preserve this long history and make it available to the community,” said Linda Gilmore, who will lead the tour. The church’s business administrator, Gilmore also happens to be a history buff. She plans to highlight many of the more interesting graves as well as sections of the cemetery, ranging from the original Old Graveyard and President’s Plot of Princeton University to the most recently added Pardee Memorial Garden, where ashes can be buried.

The cemetery dates from 1757. A fire in the late 1800s destroyed the records that existed at the time. The preservation project, which was headed by church member Allen Olsen, “incorporated all the written records we had, plus records from the historical society [of Princeton] and other places,” said Gilmore. “We surveyed every inch of the cemetery. We photographed every stone. A digital database was created, so every grave is located, and every ownership and burial that we can document, is there, though there are some unknown burials.”

The church worked with cemetery management company Legacy Mark on the preservation project.

“When we finished back in March, we had an online meeting with them, and the man said he had never seen a project like this get finished the way we did,” said Gilmore. “Most older cemeteries start out with an ambitious plan, but then realize how much is involved and change their scope. He also commented on the fact that we photographed all of the stones, which was significant, because stones deteriorate over time.”

Princeton Tour Company frequently leads tours of the storied cemetery. Owner Mimi Omiecinski thinks the new interactive map is part of a positive trend.

“Projects like what Princeton Cemetery is providing are like a cherry on top of all the ways residents and visitors can appreciate our remarkable town,” she said. “It truly is the perfect addition to the many self-guided tours provided by the Historical Society of Princeton, Princeton University, Morven Museum and Garden, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton Battlefield Society, American Battlefield Trust, and the Witherspoon-Jackson Heritage Tour.”

Admission to the June 15 tour is free and it begins at 29 Greenview Avenue. The rain date is June 22, at 10 a.m.

“The project was about preserving history, which is so important,” said Gilmore. “But we’re still an operating cemetery with graves available and burials every week. So it’s about what had happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen with future generations.”