Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Rescue of Mount Moriah Cemetery

September 17, 2014 was a landmark day for Mount Moriah Cemetery (which resides partially in Philadelphia, and partially in Yeadon, Pennsylvania). In Philadelphia City Hall, Room 416, Honorable Judge John W. Herron heard the petition by the newly-formed Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation to dissolve the Articles of the legacy (1855) Mount Moriah Cemetery Association and name the newly-formed (2012) corporation as the receiver. After hear an hour’s worth of testimony and reviewing the documentation, he gave his approval.

What does this mean? "Receivership," by legal definition, refers to a "court order whereby all the property subject to dispute in a legal action is placed under the dominion and control of an independent person known as a receiver.” In this action, Judge Herron dissolved the 159-year-old Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, whose last officer died in 2004. The Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation now has legal custodial responsibility for the property, including its tangible and intangible assets and rights, since the original company could not meet its obligations.

Mount Moriah's historic brownstone gatehouse, Kingsessing Ave., Philadelphia

From the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website:
“In December of 2012, Yeadon Borough and Philadelphia established the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation. This not-for-profit organization will likely become the Receiver of the property whereby it will be authorized to act on behalf of the Court for the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association in specified areas of business operations. 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 is diverse in experience and ethnicity.”
Mausoleums on Yeadon side of Mount Moriah Cemetery
For this overgrown several-hundred-acre cemetery that was abandoned in 2011 (see link for history), the appointment of a receiver for the property means that now there will be a legal entity to “begin the process to operate the cemetery, conduct business and wind up the affairs of the old [Mount Moriah Cemetery] Association.” (ref.) It also means, and is hoped, that Mount Moriah can once again become an active cemetery, meeting the needs of several racial, religious and socioeconomic stakeholders. Mount Moriah is one of the few cemeteries in the Philadelphia area known to accept Muslim burials and 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 (ref).

College student volunteers on a cleanup day at Mount Moriah Cemetery
The appointment of the receiver does not affect the rights of anyone who has a contract to be buried in Mount Moriah – it actually makes it more likely that this can legally be accomplished in the near future. While the cemetery was closed, burials could not legally take place. The new non-profit organization is dedicated to securing the future of the Mount Moriah Cemetery. With its a seven-member board, it will assume responsibility and report to the court twice a year on its progress in restoring the grounds and improving business operations.

The receivership hearing barely lasted an hour. On hand were members of The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI) Board of Directors (myself included), members of the Board of Directors of the new Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation, and legal representation by Matthew N. McClure and other attorneys at Ballard Spahr L.L.P. (ref.) As part of the attorneys’ prepared argument as to why the receivership should be granted (with the goal that Mount Moriah would be saved from further deterioration), Mr. McClure stated that the cemetery has 5,000 veterans, including 23 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. In response, Judge Herron made the pointed comment that all those buried at Mount Moriah deserve sanctity and respect, whether they have medals or not.

Masonic Circle of Saint John, winter 2012, prior to clearing by FOMMCI

From about the time it was abandoned in March of 2011, until the September 17, 2014 hearing, the cemetery has been maintained primarily through volunteer efforts organized by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, with assistance from the City of Philadelphia. Since 2011, the Friends have organized events with thousands of volunteers who have participated in cleanups, restoration, grave location, genealogical research, and historic tours.This will likely continue into the new era. Major fund-raising efforts will now be underway to make more significant improvements, for instance in the areas of security and infrastructure.

Masonic Circle of Saint John, spring 2014, after clearing by FOMMCI
Brian Abernathy, president of the new organization, (and current executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority) was one of the witnesses called to testify at the hearing, basically to ensure that the City of Philadelphia would play a managing role in the continued operation of Mount Moriah. Other witnesses (all of whom occupy Board positions with the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation) were Yeadon Borough mayor Rohan Hepkins, Nevin Mann (president of the Pennsylvania Cemetery Association and resident expert in the death care industry), and Paulette Rhone. Paulette, whose husband is buried at Mount Moriah, is president of the FOMMCI.

Yeadon Borough is now expected to take a greater role in preservation of that portion of Mount Moriah that resides within its borders. Mayor Hepkins stated that Mount Moriah Cemetery is a vital part of Yeadon and contributes to the quality of life in the community.

Several members of the FOMMCI were present at the hearing in addition to Paulette Rhone: Ed Snyder, vice president Bill Warwick, Treasurer Ken Smith, and Secretary Sue Facciolli. All were overjoyed at the outcome. It felt like a successful culmination of three years of hard work. Yet this is just the beginning of a new era in Mount Moriah's existence.

Mount Moriah's historic brownstone gatehouse
Mr. Abernathy has written that, "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."(ref.) "While it's only been abandoned for a few years," he points out, "it's been decades that it's been mistreated." 

“This is the largest cemetery that we know of that has been abandoned and left to die on the vine, for lack of a better term, that has been complicated by the history surrounding the site, by the political infrastructure surrounding the site and just by how truly bad conditions were at the site.” ... Abernathy says the cemetery was placed in his in-box when he worked in the Managing Director’s Office, but he took it with him to his new job in part because he was so impressed with the quality of civic leadership being brought to bear to rescue Mt. Moriah." (CBS news)
References and Further Reading:
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
Visit The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. on Facebook