Paulina Reso Paulina is the digital media and film editor at Philadelphia City Paper. When she isn't fretting about the website, she's writing about urban cycling, people's pet projects and cultural oddities. She's grown a five-pound zucchini and teenage girls often mistake her for Julia Stiles.
CRYPT KEEPER: Paulette Rhone, president of the Friends of Mount Moriah, is trying to keep the cemetery clean while two municipalities wrangle with legal and financial challenges.
Brandishing a machete, Samuel Ricks hacks at a tangle of chest-high weeds obscuring a tombstone. With each chop, more of the monument becomes visible: first a name, Colonel William McCandless, then years of birth and death, 1834 to 1884. After a few hours, the Union Army officer’s plot has been tidied, and Ricks, 59, hasn’t broken a sweat. He’s been doing these backbreaking, unpaid cleanups for two years in Mount Moriah, a 200-acre cemetery that straddles the border of Philadelphia and Yeadon and has presented a daunting challenge to all involved.
Long abandoned, Mount Moriah relies on volunteers like Ricks to maintain its grounds, a Herculean undertaking given the graveyard’s vastness and the hydra-like invasive plants that require constant attention. But Ricks and other members of Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, a volunteer group committed to preserving the space, have big dreams. They envision a respite for cyclists, bird watchers, historians and picnickers. But Mount Moriah’s issues — legal, financial and ecological — could take years to untangle, especially when there is no precedent for handling a situation of this scope and complexity.
Part of the orphaned cemetery is located in the city of Philadelphia; the rest is in Yeadon Borough. The two municipalities have created a corporation to figure out what to do next. This, say advocates, could be a turning point: Sprawling Mount Moriah, long a site for short-dumping and drug use, could either drag down an impoverished neighborhood or become the key to its revival.
Established in 1855, Mount Moriah was once a natural sanctuary where families picnicked on Sundays. By the 1980s, though, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. Weeds grew into trees and wild grasses blanketed tombstones. The Friends of Mount Moriah wanted to help maintain the grounds, but the owners refused, says the group’s president, Paulette Rhone, whose husband is buried there.
Then, in 2011, families of the interred learned through an outgoing message on the cemetery’s voicemail that Mount Moriah, run by a private nonprofit association, had closed without warning. They wanted answers.
The city of Philadelphia tried bringing the owners to court for failing to maintain the cemetery’s historic gatehouse, but the last board member, Horatio C. Jones Jr., had died in 2004. (Some employee had apparently kept it going for seven more years before abandoning the task.) Without any living board members, the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association was defunct. But it would take complex legal maneuvers to wrestle ownership from its dead hands.
The good news was that when the cemetery closed, the Friends could finally get to work. “It was a blessing in disguise,” Rhone says. With help from the city of Philadelphia, they mowed large swaths, removed a den of wild dogs and disposed of illegally dumped concrete chunks, old cars and more than 900 tires.
In addition to the Friends’ monthly cleanups, some volunteers come to the cemetery to tend patches of land they’ve come to think of as their own. A woman named Donna treats the area behind her house like an extension of her backyard. In the early days she chased away dumpers, and now, with chainsaws and heavy-duty mowers, she opens paths and tends tombstones.
Bud McCafferty, a resident of Cinnaminson, N.J., travels to Mount Moriah two to three times each week with his mower. He doesn’t have a loved one here; he’s powered by a sense of outrage. “The human race goes away, this is what it’s going to look like in downtown Philadelphia,” he says.
Still, the volunteers alone can’t keep up with all 200 acres. At the urging of aggrieved families, Philly and Yeadon began the process of taking over the cemetery. In December 2012, they created Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corp. and installed representatives from the city, Yeadon and the community on its board.
Today, though, progress has been meager.
One problem is turmoil in Yeadon’s Borough Hall. “They have had some political distractions,” says Brian Abernathy, president of the preservation corporation’s board and interim executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. In the last year, Yeadon’s council president was arrested for extortion, the borough manager stepped down and a highly contested mayoral primary was held. “All of those things led to a situation where it was difficult for me to figure out who I should call and who I shouldn’t call in order to advance the ball on some of our issues,” says Abernathy.
Rohan Hepkins, Yeadon’s representative on the board, acknowledges that the vacant borough manager seat has disrupted progress. It’s unclear when that position will be filled. Hepkins hopes that in January 2014, when the new mayor and council members take their seats, the situation will stabilize. Hepkins won the Democratic mayoral primary and is unopposed in the general election. He says that, as mayor, he’ll make Mount Moriah a top priority. “I’m just preaching patience,” Hepkins says.
Over the next year, the corporation plans to develop a landscape-maintenance plan, reconcile burial records and resolve legal questions, all complicated tasks. “It has been harder and more arduous than I ever thought it would be,” Abernathy says.
Currently, archival experts and volunteers are organizing the cemetery’s extensive records. (Approximately 85,000 people are believed to be buried at Mount Moriah.) Once it is known how much space is available for new burials, the corporation will decide if Mount Moriah can be an operating, profitable cemetery or a passive open space. Abernathy expects it will be the latter.
Then there’s the hairy legal situation. To dissolve the obsolete association that still owns the cemetery, the new corporation is trying to convince the Attorney General to file a case for receivership in Orphans’ Court.
Once those issues are resolved, the corporation can begin thinking about financing a long-term plan. The cemetery’s perpetual-care fund holds only $10,000. Annual preservation costs could be anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million, Abernathy estimates. Hepkins says the bulk of funding will need to come from private-sector grants and donations. There’s a long list of funding targets — historic-preservation groups, environmental-protection organizations, veterans’ associations, families of the interred and churches — but they won’t be solicited anytime soon. “Until we have some plans on paper to say, ‘This is what we will do with Mount Moriah Cemetery,’ it makes it very difficult to engage in that conversation,” Abernathy says.
Rhone and others believe Mount Moriah, if restored, could be a boon to Southwest Philadelphia, a poor, underserved neighborhood with little green space. Rhone imagines students studying history and horticulture while cyclists from the nearby East Coast Greenway, dubbed the urban sister to the Appalachian Trail, make a pit stop.
Opulent mausoleums and haunting angel statues grace the cemetery’s rolling hills. Hawks, eagles and even a 10-point buck have been seen roaming the grounds. With mayors, baseball players, Medal of Honor recipients and unsung heroes buried there, Mount Moriah is an untapped repository of Philadelphia history.
“Mount Moriah is a special place and, for whatever reason, it’s grown on me,” Abernathy says. “But the problems are very complicated and not easy to overcome. I think patience, optimism and hope are going to become key, but I think that in the next few years we’re going to see something special happen.”
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