Schoolteacher works to honor hundreds of unmarked York City graves

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

Death doesn’t scare Jamie Noerpel.

Instead, she finds peace and purpose in it.

“Death is a great equalizer," she said. "We’re all going to die. We’re all going to be in the ground.”

In her daily life, Noerpel is a middle school teacher at the Milton Hershey School. But her interest in history — and the fact that she once lived in an apartment overlooking the York City Cemetery — led her on a journey to preserve the field of unmarked graves for poor and unidentified people.

While death may be an equalizer, what happens to humans after death is not always equal.

Jamie Noerpel, from York Haven, showing the Project Penny Heaven cemetery in North York on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

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Noerpel said at least 200 of the estimated 800-plus graves in the potter's field have yet to be identified via city and newspaper records. She's been working to try to honor those people whose stories have been forgotten.

“The burial practices in York County reflect broader values,” Noerpel wrote on her blog, Wandering York. "In short, how we treat our dead says a lot about us."

A stone plaque in the top left corner is the only identification that the field is a cemetery. Dedicated by college students in 1995, it reads: "In memory of Clashay Johnson" — a 15-month-old boy who died in 1987 and was buried there — "and all those laid to rest in these hallowed grounds." 

Noerpel's plan is to build a stone monument with the names of the buried carved into it at the cemetery. She founded an initiative called Project Penny Heaven to raise $20,000 to fund a monument and its future upkeep.

Room will be left for the addition of additional names on the monument as more of them are located in the historical record, Noerpel said. Silbaugh Memorials is donating a portion of the monument cost, she said, but $5,825 is still needed.

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Goal in hand, Noerpel gathered friends and local scholars to create The Friends of York Cemetery committee, she said. They will help spread awareness about the project. Preservation Pennsylvania, a private nonprofit preservation organization, is handling the fundraising and finances for Project Penny Heaven. 

In the 1800s, the potter's field was located "on West College Avenue between South Beaver Street and South Cherry Lane," Noerpel said. But the graves were relocated by the city in 1897 to a new field on Schley Alley.

Located directly behind York City Cemetery, the many large monuments and markers of Prospect Hill Cemetery are a stark contrast to the almost empty potter's field.

A grave index of York City Cemetery.

And Noerpel said the minimal records often includes demeaning labels — describing the deceased as "invalid," "single mother" and "poor."

Many of the graves were identified by a group of students from Kutztown and Shippensburg universities, cross-referencing available archival information with radar scans of the field. The displacement of rocks from their natural position will show up as an anomalous magnetic signature identifying which graves were dug in the 1800s. People were interred without coffins, into vertical graves, Noerpel said. Ami L. Miller, the executive assistant at Prospect Hill Cemetery Historic Foundation, believes many buried in the potter's field died of smallpox. 

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For Noerpel, bringing recognition and dignity to those buried in York City Cemetery is personal. Growing up in a working-class family, she often went to work with her mother, who cleaned houses. Sometimes clients would let a young Noerpel have snacks or play in their backyards, but a few clients would simply ignore Noerpel and her mother, not even looking at them.

“How we treat people we deem lesser reflects who we are — this goes for the living and departed,” she said.

While potter’s fields are less common today, those who can’t afford a funeral or a headstone can still be buried in unmarked graves, Noerpel said. The most recent burial in York City Cemetery was 2004.

She relates this to her personal experiences because some of her own relatives live on fixed incomes.

"When I think about them, if they didn’t have people to take care of them, they would just be buried here anonymously with no legacy,” Noerpel said.

Jamie Noerpel, from York Haven, showing the Project Penny Heaven cemetery in North York on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

Mostly Black and African American individuals were buried in potter's fields in the 1800s, said Samantha Dorm, a volunteer from the Friends of Lebanon Cemetery. However, both Black and white individuals are buried side by side in York City Cemetery.

Project Penny Heaven began to gather steam after Noerpel published an article about York City Cemetery on her blog. Joy Giguere, an associate professor of history at Penn State, saw Noerpel’s articles and invited her to speak at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Association for Gravestone Studies.

Coincidentally, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich was at the meeting, Noerpel said. He expressed interest in her idea. He has helped her think about the design of the monument so it can be easily maintained by the local government, she said. 

Now, almost one year later The Friends of York City Cemetery are about to begin their campaign. At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15, Noerpel, Helfrich and Michael Shanabrook, a former York City planning engineer, will speak about the project at the field located on Schley Alley.

To read more about Noerpel's research, Project Penny Heaven and the many partners involved, visit Noerpel's blogs: Witnessing York and Wandering York and the project fundraising website through Preservation Pennsylvania

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.