Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mt.Moriah Cemetery Rising from the Dead?

Well, the big Clean-Up happened today, Saturday, July 18, 2011, and boy am I beat! Through the mayor’s office, the City of Philadelphia organized a volunteer day clean-up through the organization ‘SERVE Philadelphia’ at Mt.Moriah Cemetery. I registered on-line the week before and showed up today at 8 a.m.

Since the place was officially abandoned a few months ago, Mt. Moriah's 380 acres (Pennsylvania’s largest cemetery, opened in 1855) have met spring and summer with a vengeance. Trees, grass, honeysuckle and poison ivy grow rampant, all but covering even the part of the cemetery that was sort of being maintained. When some plot owners recently filed a lawsuit against this inner city cemetery for negligence, the man and woman who worked in the office packed up and left. As the city has not been able to identify any actual owners, my guess is that these people who were taking money for burials over the past however many years (some say since the 1970s), were just squatters! What a way to make a buck! Find an abandoned cemetery and bury people! You pay for the backhoe, keep the grass cut on a few acres, and pocket the profits! No taxes or license fees, nothing! So the city finds itself with a huge eyesore with many irate citizens and plotholders on its hands.

Trash collecting in the cemetery
Last week I stopped by to see what the place looked like, as I hadn’t been here in the couple months since the city padlocked and barricaded the entrances. Looks like the city has really taken over, investing money into its clean-up and security, as it waits for some group to step forward and take it over. In addition to confiscating all the records from the office they apparently weed-whacked the tall grass in this (non-overgrown forest) section of the cemetery (tho the weeds had not been cut on the Cobbs Creek side and that just looked wild). 

Tires and Tombstones
The piles of old tires were gone from behind the gatehouse fa├žade (shown at beginning of this article), dirt roads were scraped clear of trash and heaps of old building materials. In fact while I was there, a city garbage truck flew by me on its way to the entrance on Kingsessing Ave. As I turned my car to follow it a few minutes later, I was surprised to find the front gate chained shut! Not to worry, as large sections of fencing are missing, so I just drove my car up the embankment, out over the sidewalk and into the street. But I still got that panic-y feeling you get when you first realize you’re locked in a cemetery!

Registering for the Mount Moriah Cemetery Clean-Up Day
Saturday, July 18 was when a hundred people showed up to see what they could do. After registering and signing waivers (so you don’t sue the city if you get hurt), we were assigned to work crews and told not to lift any headstones and be careful not to fall into sunken graves. The city provided police protection, an ambulance for first aid, rakes, trash bags, gloves, and water and juice for the duration. It was supposed to be hotter than hell and they really didn’t want people overexerting themselves.

Raked piles of dried grass
The majority of the work involved raking up the dried grass cut by the weed-whackers over the past few weeks. Everyone raked it into piles, pushed the piles onto tarps, then dragged them down to one of the cemetery roads where city workers would later load them into trucks to be hauled away. We joked about whether this would happen before some jackass set them on fire!

I started thinking that maybe a controlled burn in the place would make more sense than all this raking (which was tough work, by the way, given all the tangles of vines and other ground cover). Really, all we were doing was removing the dead grass and giving breathing space to the live grass and weeds below − so that it would all grow faster! A sort of prairie fire would renew the place, burn the trees and weeds, which I was told was actually suggested by the fire department. They wouldn’t have to worry about hurting the wild pit bulls – one of the SERVE volunteers told me the city had them removed (not sure about the coyotes, though). The burn idea was shelved not because it was technically unfeasible, but because it was esthetically, shall we say, Armageddon-like. The sight of a cemetery on fire might not sit too well with the public, or the neighbors, for that matter. (Besides, Philadelphia doesn’t need another out-of-control ‘MOVE-style’ inferno.) Also, it was pointed out that the tombstones and monuments would be blackened in the process, and then would require cleaning.

So about 8:30 a.m. everyone started into it. About 8:45, the grunting and groaning began. More than one person said, “I should’ve worked out for a week before doing this!” Really, it was hard work, especially in the hot sun. My group was working around the old gatehouse where the Fox News truck was filming. My wife asked me later that day if it was emotional, doing this kind of work. 

I’m not a real emotional kind of guy, but it did give me an odd feeling scraping unseen headstones with a rake - a strange sound that always caught me off guard. They'd been toppled over and lay buried in the grass. I never thought about the insensitivity of vandals in this way – if you’re going to knock over a gravestone, how about doing it so it lands face-up? That way when people come looking for their ancestors’ graves (as many people did today), they’d be more likely to find them. 

Filling a Sunken Grave
There were people here of all ages, and all walks of life − all with their own personal reasons for coming. (Oddly, I couldn’t really put my own reasons for being here into words, when asked.) From the few people I spoke with and conversations I overheard, some were registered members of the volunteer organization, SERVE, some were war veterans or Civil War enthusiasts. Some came from as far as thirty miles away.There were Freemason and Rotary club members. One ex-funeral director I know was there filling in a sunken grave. An old woman who had family buried here and was just observing the spectacle was very thankful. Most people didn’t really chat much, just worked hard  to do what they were assigned. Mayor Michael Nutter stopped by and chatted with us a bit, thanking everyone. 

Mayor Nutter, at right

Father Time, engulphed
I spoke with one of the volunteer organizers about the many millions of dollars it would take to get this place into shape. I’m not talking about restoring it to its original grandeur – it may be beyond that. Why not try to get other professional organizations to volunteer or donate their specific expertise? Wouldn’t that be great publicity for them? Have arborists come in and cut down the forest of trees that encroach upon the monuments, have a fencing company replace parts of the missing main fence on Kingsessing Avenue, cemetery restoration companies provide crews to right all the toppled tombstones.

But what might happen is local labor unions would balk, like the Streets Department did when the idea was brought up to use prisoners to do the grounds crew clean-up and grass cutting we were doing. That would go against the contract, take work away from them! The fact that the city doesn’t have the money to pay people to do this doesn’t enter into the equation.

Freeing tombstone from its arboreal prison
Freed Tombstone
Around noon, one of the guys from a group that was cutting overgrown trees from around monuments called out to me. He asked if I wanted to take a break and go over to the Circle of Saint John, through the trees on the other side of the cemetery. Everyone was sweaty and tired, but it wasn't like you could just drop down and rest in the shade of a tree - the deer ticks would eat you alive, so we all took a hike. 

Our tour leader had been here many times with two of his Masonic lodge members to hack out trees growing around various monuments in that area, so he knew the terrain as well as I did. It seemed there were a few guys in the group who had never been back there in the deep woods, so we all took a hike. Always interesting to see the facial expressions and hear the exclamations of first-timers here when they see the magnificent family memorials in the woods, the crazy foliage smothering giant monuments. 

Burned-out car, hung up on tombstone
The access roads leading to the back part of the cemetery had been widened a bit as the city’s heavy equipment had barreled through – these little dirt roads were not made for giant trash trucks and front-loaders carrying burned-our cars out of the cemetery. As a result, unfortunately, some roadside monuments were knocked out of place and others were side-swiped. 

Land of the Lost
As we approached the circle and could see the top of its central marble column about thirty feet above  the trees, we cut into the tangle of dense growth, poison ivy, and raspberry vines as several people wanted to see it up close. Wresting our way through the jungle, one guy ahead of me said, “I feel like I should be carrying an M-16.” The column is part of an enormous 1871 monument to the late Masonic Grand Tyler, William B. Schnider. Just to give you an appreciation for the size of this amazing marble sculpture, the photo at right shows one of our volunteers standing at its base.

For the past eight years, these three guys from the local Pennsylvania Masonic lodge would come here a few times each year to saw down trees from around various monuments and carry away trash from the area. One time two of them were in the circle working  with machetes and a chainsaw, and unwittingly provided some visitors with a close encounter they’ll never forget. For years, hookers would bring their johns to
the Circle of Saint John (no pun intended) by car to do their thing (which you can't help seeing if you spend any time in this cemetery). While they were there, a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere as they were working. They looked up – while brandishing the machete and chainsaw – only to see the horrified look on the faces of the couple in the truck! They said the hooker started screaming and the driver hit the gas and you never SAW a vehicle go so fast in reverse!

As we headed back through the wooded cemetery roads, we came upon two small groups of our fellow  volunteers who were lost. People think I exaggerate the dangers of this place, but even on a bright sunny day, you can feel strangely vulnerable here. As this thought occurred to me, I realized this is one of the few times in recent memory that I’ve ventured into Mt. Moriah without a weapon! Maybe if the cleanup continues (as its scheduled to) each month, there may come a time when people can safely visit this place and enjoy the history, nature, art, and architecture it has to offer.

After the clean-up, I was exhausted. Although I brought all my serious cameras, they sat in the trunk of my car parked on 62th Street. The photos you see here were taken with my little digital Panasonic point-and-shoot, between swigs of water or bandaging the calluses on my hands.

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