Trenton’s own Mercer Cemetery, the first non-sectarian cemetery in New Jersey is one of the city’s most notable landmarks. Once a popular, sought-after final resting place for many of Trenton’s prominent figures and war veterans, the cemetery currently holds approximately 4,000 bodies. The cemetery has been closed several times since it was first established in 1842. Now it’s open by request for events only. Judy Winkler, Mercer Cemetery Board Member, is working to revive the historic cemetery.
“I’ve spent most of my life around cemeteries,” Judy said. “They’re quiet, peaceful – no one really bothers you. They’re a great place to just be.” She made it clear that she believes the cemetery can be an important and safe place for the homeless community, as well. “I think that the homeless can and should be allowed to stay here, and that, in exchange for a place to stay, they can help in keeping the cemetery clean.” A powerful form of stewardship, “but folks may disagree with me.”
Judy’s been living in Mill Hill for 47 years and volunteering at the cemetery since the 1990s. She started her research at the Mercer Cemetery as part of a project led by the Green Acres division of the Department of Environmental Protection that installed benches and fixed gravestones, among other tasks. Within the last five years, a new board for the Mercer County Cemetery was constituted. “And I made sure I was on it,” she said with a smile. “It’s an exciting project, but we have no money. We’re only bringing [in] around $8,000 dollars a year,” she said. Money has always been tight for groups stewarding the cemetery. When it was first established, the cemetery had a budget of 50 cents. “So, everything I do [pertains to] fundraising.”
Judy believes there is an opportunity for renewed collaboration with the Green Acres division in the Department of Environmental Protection around the wildlife in the cemetery. For example, there’s a kestrel hawk nesting in the cemetery that would be great for a livestream camera setup. She also hopes people will pick up individual projects, “This cemetery is about 5.7 acres in all. There’s quite a bit of space to work within here.” One of her primary goals is finding partnerships. “I’m thinking about doing a Day of the Dead event next year. We need to get the Latinx community involved.” Another is growing the board, specifically bringing on people who can raise money or donate to support maintenance or other projects. Still, the Mercer Cemetery board is finding a way. On September 8th, local musician Dave Ross played guitar and sang songs from Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, U2, and The Dave Matthews Band with help from an amp propped up on a granite bench from the Green Acres project. Dave will return on September 22nd. On September 15th there will be an old school Hip-Hop DJ and the Trenton House Heads will perform on the final Friday of the month.
Judy hopes to have the cemetery open twice a week next year. For now, the cemetery will only be open on Fridays in September for the Fridays at the Cemetery in community gathering event. In the meantime, the board is applying for grants, including the Department of Transportation grant for pedestrians. “People should be able to walk through the cemetery…outside of Mill Hill Park, [the cemetery] is the only greenspace in the area,” she said. “I want to transform this space into an urban park. What I’d love to see happen is tai-chi classes, guided yoga, or meditation classes in the mornings or the evenings…and people stopping by on their lunch break to have a meal.”
But there remain a few challenges to overcome before the cemetery can get to that point. The trees and poison ivy are immediate challenges, but you can’t get to them because of the gravestones. Getting electricity into the cemetery is the other.
“I wanted to get the Cryptkeeper Five in here for the first [Fridays at the Cemetery event], but there would have been no way to power all their equipment. I wanted it to get loud in here to bring people in. We need vital energy to bring people in. I’m 76. I’ll gladly help older people find their ancestors, but I’m more focused on bringing in vital energy and people who’ll stay involved with the space,” Judy explains.
Harrison Watson is a PhD student at Princeton University and has written environmentally-focused stories with various outlets including These Times and Next City.