Germantown Then & Now: Hidden Meanings at Neelsville Church Cemetery

Remembering the past on Memorial Day

Most people today regard cemeteries as depressing places. But in the 19th century, cemeteries were thought of as quiet places for contemplation and remembering. Corporate cemeteries began to appear in the mid-1800s. They were established with invested funds for perpetual upkeep. Famous landscape architects were hired to lay out the grounds with winding paths and exotic trees, flowers and shrubs. They were more like parks than graveyards, dotted with statuary, elaborate tombstones and fanciful crypts with many of the stones inscribed with verses of poetry along with the names and dates of the departed.

Before that time, the dead were buried in family burial plots on farms or in churchyard cemeteries, usually laid out in a grid pattern. Neelsville Presbyterian Church on Rt. 355 and Neelsville Church Road has the oldest and the largest cemetery in Germantown. The burial ground dates back to 1842 when the land was donated by Joseph Neel, even though the church was not officially recognized until 1845 and a church building was not constructed until 1850 (replaced in 1878). The cemetery was incorporated in the 1930s and has a perpetual upkeep fund.

The final resting place of many of the early settlers of Germantown, Neelsville and Middlebrook can be found in the cemetery, and not all of them were Presbyterians. Those who were not members of the church had to pay a higher fee, but could still be buried there. Family names found on the stones reflect the English, German, Prussian backgrounds of Germantown and include: Neel (Neale), Musser, Benson, Linthicum, Grusendorf, Snyder, Crawford, Graff, Dorsey, Richter and Henderson.

A walk through the cemetery is like a walk through time. From impressive tall obelisks and angel statues to small stones, the commemoration of the dead has taken many forms. In Victorian times it was the custom to have a verse written on the stone. Sometimes these words came from the Bible, but, more often than not, they were short poems written by a loved one and were very personal and individualized.

Near the center of the cemetery stand two poignant reminders of how fragile life was in the old days. A child angel is depicted on the stone of Mabel Waters, born July 22, 1886, “Fell asleep in [sic] Jesus” June 10, 1889. An angel and a cross mark the grave of Horace Waters, born March 18, 1889, and died November 3, 1893. Both were the children of Horace and Valeria Waters.

Symbolism was also a custom in those bygone days. Plants, flowers and objects had special meanings that were known to everyone at the time, but the meanings have been lost to modern folk. For those of you who find the time to take a contemplative stroll through this or another cemeteries, here are some symbolic interpretations from the past:

Flowers and plants

  • Acorn = rebirth
  • Anemone = sorrow
  • Goldenrod = loyalty
  • Ivy = memory
  • Lily = purity
  • Oak leaf = immortality
  • Rosebud = child
  •  Rose = death in the prime of life
  • Violet = humility


  • Angel = eternal life
  • Lamb = child, innocence
  • Laurel wreath = honor
  • Tree stump = death in the prime of life
  • Urn, drapery, weeping willow = mourning


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