Monday, August 4, 2014

Vandals Strike in Wilmington Cemetery

Around mid-summer 2014, I was getting my car fixed at the Saab dealer in Wilmington, Delaware. After the sizable extraction of money from my wallet, I grabbed a burger and a Coke from a nearby fast food emporium. What better place to eat lunch than the nearby cemetery (its not just postal workers and cops who do this, you know). So I drove to Riverview Cemetery about half a mile down the road.

"Abiding faith and hope in a glorious reunion"
On entering the north side off Market Street (which is the newer half of the 1872 cemetery), I was a bit distracted by all the headstones that appeared to be knocked over, off their bases. I drove around to find some shade in which to park, and noted many more knocked-over headstones and small obelisks. Odd. I’d been in here many times before and would have definitely noticed this. Was it because the grass was cut so low that I’m seeing this? I’d been here before where the grass had grown kind of tall. Maybe I just never noticed them?

Doorless crypt
I stopped in the shade of some trees near a crypt which had its door removed; interesting stained glass window at the back. I ate my lunch and just got out of the car to photograph the stained glass when I realized a pickup truck was headed down the road toward me – I was blocking the road. There’s usually no activity at Riverview so it didn’t occur to me to pull off the road.

I moved my car to one side and then got out with my camera, to make it very obvious to the driver what I was doing there. Obviously the crypt had at one time lost its door to thieves so I didn't want anyone to think I was casing it out to steal the stained glass. Much thievery has occurred here over the years - you can tell by the blocked up doorways of the larger mausoleums. The truck stopped and the woman driving it looked at me and I said “Hi.” She asked if she could help me and I just told her I stopped to eat my lunch and take some pictures. I assumed she had some authority here so I wanted her to know that I was not up to no good. She probably assumed this, since I was driving a bright blue turbo Saab convertible – not the vehicle of choice for thieves and vandals.

Blocked up mausoleum
I mentioned to her that it appeared that many headstones had been knocked over. She told me this had only happened the previous week (July 15, 2014) – the work of vandals. Seventy monuments and other grave markers in all had been pushed off their bases. Given that horrible situation, I told her that it was great that she stopped me to see what I was up to. I introduced myself as a Board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. in Philadelphia, an organization of which she was well aware. She was the Secretary on the Board of the Friends of Riverview Cemetery.

Cylindrical grave markers displaced from their bases

Security is a major issue when you have limited funds to protect your space. Neither Riverview nor Mount Moriah have intact fencing, gates, or security patrols. Volunteers are left to patrol the grounds when they can. Local police sometimes cruise through, or park for a while. I myself have stopped people at Mount Moriah and asked if I could help them. Usually, they are there for a good reason, but sometimes not. You don’t want to lock the cemetery up and prevent visitors from accessing their loved ones’ graves while you’re keeping out vandals, scofflaws, and ne’er do wells. It is a challenge. After I posted the photograph below (with my blue car in it) on Facebook, someone made the comment, "One day the idiots responsible will go to visit their mother's grave and find it like this. Then they'll know the true cost of their criminality." Couldn't have said it better myself.

We struck up quite a conversation, the two of us there in Riverview, seeing many parallels between the cemeteries and our Friends groups. At some point the woman said, “What are the chances we would run into each other like this?” I replied, “Well, actually the chances are pretty good that two cemetery nerds would be in the same cemetery at the same time.” So I’ll make a few introductions and perhaps the two Friends groups can share some ideas to their mutual benefit. Like they say, everyone you meet knows something that you don’t!

Vandalized headstones at Riverview Cemetery
I had actually written about Riverview Cemetery back in 2012 (click here to read), when I noticed that the place seemed to be having a lot more attention paid to it than I was used to seeing. I’d been coming here since the early 2000s, when I first started having my previous Saabs repaired down the road at Sports Car Service. Weeds used to be waist high, but then new management took over in 2008 and things turned around. The Friends of Riverview Cemetery was actually granted legal ownership of the cemetery and through the hard work of these volunteers, Riverview Cemetery continues to be an active burial site. This is a goal for Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia/Yeadon – to once again have active burials once the ownership situation is resolved.

Riverview Cemetery chapel

It really is quite a nasty blow to Wilmington's Riverview Cemetery to have had all this damage done; the estimated repair cost is about $20,000, i.e., to reset all the stones and monuments. The owners, the Friends group, barely has enough money to cut the grass. I guess one of the useful things I did learn from this travesty is that so many grave markers, by design, merely sit on a stone base, without actually being attached to it. Perhaps modern headstone carvers should make headstones with steel dowels that fit into the base, to secure the stone. I have seen this with older marble headstones.

Anyone with information about the vandalism at Riverview Cemetery, please call the Wilmington police Confidential Tip Line at (302)576-3990.

References and Further Reading:
Riverview Cemetery website
Vandals damage 70 tombstones at cemetery
70 Headstones Toppled At Wilmington Cemetery