Temporary resting place
Visitors to Marietta’s Mound Cemetery are often curious about a large, weathered sandstone structure that stands to the left of the walkway about halfway between the mound and the cemetery’s main entrance on Fifth Street.
“It looks really sinister. People usually think it’s a tomb of some kind,” said Lynne Sturtevant, who often conducts historical tours of Mound Cemetery as the founder and owner of Hidden Marietta.
In fact, the structure is what was known as a “receiving tomb” when former Marietta mayor, businessman and philanthropist Nahum Ward commissioned the building of the stone vault in the mid-1800s.
The receiving tomb provided a temporary resting place for bodies when the ground was too frozen for grave-digging or when a burial had to be delayed for some reason.
“It was put up before the Civil War,” Sturtevant said. “Embalming was not common at that time. That wasn’t something most people did. When someone died they were usually buried pretty quick.”
She noted that most graveyards at that time were not located within town limits, and when a death occurred the body of the deceased might be kept in the bedroom or parlor of a home for viewing for a day or so, but then it was quickly removed and taken to a cemetery.
“But what if the ground was frozen or there had been a flood and the soil was not stable?” Sturtevant asked. “Ward had the stone vault built so they could keep bodies until they could be buried.”
In his book, “Mound Cemetery of Marietta, Ohio,” the late Marietta College Professor Owen Hawley provided some history of the receiving tomb, also known as the Ward Stone Vault.
“(T)he city needed a suitable place in which to keep the remains of a deceased person in the event the freezing winter weather did not allow digging a grave immediately, or if the body had to be kept somewhere until out-of-town family members arrived for the funeral,” Hawley wrote.
He noted during a Marietta Council meeting on May 31, 1859, there was “a proposition from N. Ward to sell to the city a tomb erected by him in the graveyard for the sum of $125 to be used as a Receiving Tomb…”
A local philanthropist, Ward had financed several local projects, including his most famous-the building of the massive Unitarian Universalist Church on the corner of Third and Putnam streets. Hawley wrote that Ward paid $25,000 for the church construction.
But the receiving tomb was not purchased by the city until after Ward’s death on April 6, 1860, according to Hawley, who wrote that the stone structure was finally bought in January 1862 from William Skinner Ward, Nahum’s son.
Hawley quoted the city council minutes stating the tomb was purchased for “the sum of sixty dollars to be paid when the City Treasurer shall receive from the County Auditor the December installment of taxes due this city.”
He added that council also instructed the cemetery sexton to charge $2 for the use of the vault for any amount of time, not to exceed 10 days.
The first publicly-recorded use of the receiving tomb was in September 1867, according to Hawley, who noted that Noah Lindsley Wilson, president of the Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad, had died in Versailles, France, at the age of 54.
The Marietta Register reported that Wilson’s remains were placed in the vault at Mound Cemetery “to await the arrival of Mrs. Wilson when the funeral services take place sometime next week.”
Wilson was finally buried on Sept. 26.
When local funeral homes came into being and the science of embalming became more widely used, the receiving vault was no longer needed to store bodies.
“But the vault was still there,” Sturtevant said. “It was used as a tool shed by the cemetery crews for a while, until better tool-storage facilities were constructed at the Oak Grove Cemetery.”
Hawley wrote that the receiving tomb opening was eventually bricked up “to prevent less desirable uses from occurring within the vault.”
“Something like that would have been irresistible to some of the area teenagers,” she said.
Scott Britton, local historian and director of The Castle in Marietta, also conducts guided tours of Mound Cemetery during the warmer months of the year. He said the Ward Stone Vault always draws tourists’ attention.
“I don’t even have to bring the subject up. People are always very curious about what the stone vault is,” he said. “And they’re really surprised when I tell them the story behind it. It’s interesting to see their reaction. But after I explain the use of the tomb, they can see the practicality during that time of history.”