Monday, October 24, 2011

Beginning to Die - The Strange State of Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Things are beginning to die once again at Mount Moriah Cemetery, in southwest Philadelphia. It is October, when the grounds unveil their new fall wardrobe. Which is essentially the opposite of what the living do as it gets colder − a paring down, a baring-all in comparison to its heavily clothed leafy summer atire. It’s really the only time of the year to see this enormous Victorian cemetery in all its run-down glory. No camouflage to mask its sores, no briars and poison ivy left to prohibit access to its most forbidden corners. 

Volunteers pruning trees
The volunteer clean-up crews have died out for the season as well. As the heavy weed growth has been curtailed by Mother Nature, there is no need for whacking, mowing, and raking. Though an enormous amount of maintenance and restoration can keep volunteers busy all winter, the idea may to avoid burning out the willing help. 

As one of the registered volunteers, I received this letter last week from the Chief of Staff at the Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office. I thought it would be of interest to all my readers to see what goes on behind the scenes of keeping a cemetery from dying. Maintaining any cemetery as a viable business is not an easy thing to do, which is no wonder so many succumb to abandonment.  Read on, you may learn a bit about the biz. You’ll also see how a cemetery can be managed quite unscrupulously.

(Photographs by Ed Snyder)

All - I have been asked by a number of stakeholders to recap what's happened around Mt. Moriah Cemetery.  That overview is below.  As you'll see, this situation is complicated and there's no easy answers.  However, I'm confident that by working together, we'll continue to make progress.
If you have additional questions, please let me know.
Brian Abernathy, Chief of Staff
Managing Director's Office
Suite 1430 Municipal Services Building
1401 John F. Kennedy Blvd.
Philadelphia,  PA  19102
(215) 686-2134
(267) 455-4444

Mt. Moriah Cemetery – An Overview

Background and History
Mt. Moriah Cemetery is an historic burial ground incorporated by an Act of the State Legislature in 1855.  While reports indicate that the Cemetery is 380 acres, a review of real estate records indicates that it is approximately 200 acres.  Philadelphia and Yeadon share approximately equal shares of the Cemetery.
Since its founding, the Cemetery has been governed and cared for by the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Association.  In 2004, the last known member of that Association, Horatio C. Jones, Jr., passed away.   From 2004 until March 2011, the Cemetery appears to have been operated by an employee of the Association. 
The State still recognizes the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Association as the legal owner and operator of the Cemetery; however, because the last known board member has passed away, no individual exists to act on the Association’s behalf.  As such, no responsible party is present to assist with maintenance, burials, disinterments or the placement of headstones.
Sometime after the mid-1950s, the Association established a Perpetual Care Fund to assist in the long-term maintenance of the grounds.  The Fund would deposit a percentage of the cost of the burial lot into a separate account.  The interest earned on the account was to be spent to maintain the grounds and the principal of the account was not to be spent. 

In March, the City was made aware through news reports and citizen phone calls that Mt. Moriah had ended its business operations.  To our knowledge, no one from the Association informed the State, the City or the funeral directors that had worked with the cemetery of its intent to close.  
Since first hearing of the closure, the City has led a working group consisting of representatives of Yeadon, Council President Verna, Councilwoman Blackwell, Councilman Jones, Representative Waters and Senator Williams.
Governing Authorities
Cemetery operations are governed by state law and regulated by the Commonwealth’s Real Estate Commission.  However, the Commission’s authority is limited to licensing and ensuring that proper payments are made to the Perpetual Care Fund. The City itself has no specific oversight of cemetery operations although the City’s Property Maintenance Code does apply in the maintenance of the buildings and grounds not occupied by existing burial lots.

Burned-out car hung up on gravestone
There is no state or local agency directly charged with regulatory oversight of cemetery maintenance or the physical conditions of burial lots; however, the failure to properly maintain the cemetery may constitute a misdemeanor under the State’s Burial Grounds Law and other criminal violations may have occurred.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General has received complaints alleging consumer fraud relating to the purchase of burial plots that may no longer be available.  The Attorney General cannot confirm or deny that an investigation is ongoing; meanwhile, other state agencies may also be conducting their own, independent investigations. 

Maintenance and Records
Cemetery forest
The Cemetery has been poorly maintained for decades with many of its historic sections overgrown and wooded.  Since its closure, the portions of the Cemetery that had previously been maintained by the Association have deteriorated.   Because business operations have ceased at the Cemetery, there is no operator to coordinate and consent to the placement of new headstones, and, regardless of whether or not burial plots were previously purchased, no operator to coordinate and consent to new burials on the property.  
Mount Moriah Gatehouse, Kingsessing Avenue
Because of the condition of the property and the deterioration of the historic gatehouse, which is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the City instituted a Code Enforcement complaint against the Association.  The City named the Association and Lydia Jones – the widow of the last known board member of the Association - as defendants.   Lydia Jones appeared through an attorney and claimed that she has no substantive relationship to the Cemetery.  
The City’s action against Mount Moriah revealed that the Association that owns and operates the cemetery has not had a board of directors or any other person authorized to act on behalf of the Association since 2004 when the last board member of the Association, Horatio Jones, died.  
Due to overgrowth of foliage, mausoleums can only be seen in winter.
Since the Association is a non-stock entity there are no shareholders to push for the election of new board members.  While it is still a validly existing entity in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there are no individuals that are duly authorized to run and operate the business.
As such, it is unlikely that the Court will hold any person, in their individual capacity, responsible for the property maintenance violations.
Through this lawsuit, the City also learned that the balances of the bank accounts owned by the Association are too low to effectively operate the Cemetery.  This issue has been reported to the Real Estate Commission, the Attorney General and District Attorney.  
Graffitied mausoleum
As part of the City’s court action, the Court allowed the City access to the property to abate the most egregious conditions.  The City’s vacant lot program was able to cut the grass on a significant portion of the property at a significant cost.  This effort culminated in a community event organized in larger part by three community organizations: the Friends of Mt. Moriah, Save a Grave for Mt. Moriah and Build a Fence for Mt. Moriah. The Association has been billed and a lien will be placed on the property for the full amount.  

These community groups have committed to provide best efforts to maintain the property for the immediate future and several additional community clean-ups are scheduled. Estimates for annual maintenance of the entire property are approximately $500,000.
Yeadon side, Cobbs Creek Pkwy.
Because of the resources required to maintain the property, Yeadon has not been able to take the same action as Philadelphia; however, they are moving forward with property violations and intend to lien the property.
Because of the imminent threat of damage to the historical records contained in the Association’s office, the Court authorized the City to remove and secure the historic records.  The records are currently being stored by Iron Mountain, a records storage company.  The City’s Consumer Affairs Advocate Lance Haver is the point-of-contact for family members inquiring about their loved ones.
Ongoing Operations – The Long-term Issue
The future operations of the cemetery are complex and must account for a number of issues.  
        Considerations include:
        The Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries in the City known to accept Muslim burials.
        The Cemetery is one of two in the vicinity known to accept “communal” burials – burials where three bodies share one grave and are a less expensive option for many families.
        The Cemetery charged approximately $1500 per burial – a much more affordable option than other cemeteries, which charge up to $5000 per plot.
        Approximately 60% of Philadelphia’s portion of the cemetery and perhaps more of Yeadon’s portion – including the most important historical sites - is overgrown and inaccessible to the public.  
        While approximately 80,000 dead are buried in the Cemetery, by most reports, there is still significant space for additional burials.
        As previously mentioned, the perpetual care fund – a fund established by law in the 1950s to guarantee ongoing cemetery maintenance into which 10% of the plot cost is to be deposited – and the general operating account do not have balances sufficient to maintain the property.  
        Several reports have indicated that burials may have not occurred properly (i.e. within a drainage area) and there are unconfirmed reports that multiple burials have occurred in single (not communal) plots.
        Because of the questions surrounding the Cemetery’s operations, whatever entity takes control of the Cemetery in the future must be protected from the Association’s past liability.
The Cemetery contains several historical burials including soldiers of the Revolutionary, Spanish-American, Civil and both World Wars.  
        Notable individuals buried at the Cemetery include Betsy Ross (thought to be moved in the mid-1970s); George Connell, Philadelphia’s first Mayor; Senator Israel Wilson Durham, a former President of the Phillies; John Whitehead, singer, songwriter and producer; and Henry Jones, fugitive slave turned successful restaurant owner that won a landmark Supreme Court decision to allow his burial at the cemetery.  
Several churches moved their cemeteries to Mt. Moriah over the years.  Notable sections include: First Baptist Church, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, St. George’s Methodist Church and others.  Several Masonic Lodges also have specific sections and the Beverly National Cemetery maintains veterans’ sections.
        The Cemetery may be a node for the East Coast Greenway.
        Because of these historical and environmental attributes, funds may be available through historic preservation, recreation and environmental grants.
        Because the Cemetery is an important resource to several racial, religious and socioeconomic stakeholders, it is important to guarantee stability of its future operations.  
Today, the Mount Moriah Cemetery is owned by a defunct non-profit corporation and the Cemetery cannot continue its business operations unless and until the ownership issue is addressed. In order to obtain a new owner for the property court action is likely required.  
Yeadon and Philadelphia are currently negotiating the development of a new not-for-profit organization to take ownership of the property.  Because of the complexity of the issues and in order to insure a similar situation does not occur in the future, ongoing municipal involvement is important.  While the organization would be led by the municipal governments, the organization’s board would be as diverse as those interested in the Cemetery and include representatives of different races, religions and backgrounds. 
There are several opportunities to fund the new organization and improve the Cemetery’s current conditions.  Historic preservation grants, storm water management fees, funding as a portion of the East Coast greenway, environmental protection grants and donations from stakeholders like the various churches, masons and veterans’ organizations are all potential funding sources. Cemetery operations could be funded by new burials.  Once the site is abated, most death care industry experts believe the cemetery may be self-sustaining.