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   Downingtown Friends Meeting
An Early History of Quakers in the Great Valley

      A book by Francis Brown


I have alluded several times to our Graveyard. Our Meeting may be somewhat unique in that we have never had family plots. For the most part people are buried seriatim. The graves on the west side from the middle are the oldest. Among these are to be found many rectangular cement markers—markers which I must confess are not very appealing. Around the turn of the century, Charles T. Thomas had these blocks cast by workers on his farm. They were to identify otherwise unmarked graves. Out of concern for simplicity, many early Quaker graves had no identification of any kind. Others were marked by simple field stones. You will see many such stones still there. I love them. I would suggest that a good project some day would be to replace those ugly cement markers—some of which are beginning to deteriorate anyway—with plain field stones.

Another feature of our Graveyard is the presence of numerous partial rows of so-called "foot stones." These are marked with the initials of the name appearing on the head stone. It was a practice which apparently became fashionable about a century ago. These foot stones are sporadic with the result that much valuable space is wasted. My thought is that, as we need space, these rows be used for cremations, with the foot stones replaced with "head stones" to mark the new grave. By this procedure we should have burial space for many years to come. We no longer have space for full burials in our present yard.

Let me now share an intriguing early minute of the men's Meeting. As of September, 1813, this minute reads: "The Committee of Men and Women Friends who were appointed to take into consideration the burial ground, agreed to recommend that the south end of the ground be divided for a moderate distance into two equal parts by a small passage between them. The west division to be for the internment of such persons of color as Friends may judge it proper to admit." (Emphasis mine). "And the east division for strangers." (Presumably non-Friends).

Now, without ever having given it much thought, I had always assumed that burials began at, or near, the time our Meeting House had been built. But not so: the earliest graves were not until 1814—at least eight years later. So this recommendation in 1813 involved the initial layout of the Graveyard, before any internments had been made—which perhaps adds to its significance. And, given that I have always thought our Meeting was quite conservative in such matters, this is an amazing proposal. There is no indication, either then or later, whether the recommendation was approved and there is no trace today of any division or "passage." In any case, the very fact that a proposal such as this was even considered can give us some satisfaction.

The next reference to uses of the graveyard wasn't until 1868 when detailed "Rules and Regulations" were minuted. Interestingly, they included specification that the stones were to be no more than eight inches high. But they contained no provisions for minorities. By 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the ardor for caring for black people, as in the 1813 plan, had probably abated.

It's only a hunch, but, somehow I associate that 1813 plan with Elizabeth Downing. Against the background of her steps to free slaves and her part in establishing the School—one reason for which was likely to educate black children as well as white—it seems altogether consistent that she would have been concerned to provide for their proper internment at death.

That this recommendation came from a "Committee of Men and Women Friends", as the 1813 minute states, struck me immediately as unusual. The only other joint committee mentioned in the minutes was years later, in 1871, when a committee of men and women was appointed to care for the Library. From the beginning it was the men who supervised the burial ground. The initiative for the 1813 joint committee, therefore, must have come from the women. And who among them would have been more likely than Elizabeth Webster Downing? For these several reasons she stands out as one of the important personages in the history of our Meeting.

Download the current list of graves in our graveyard.

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