Curving over a hill that crests one of the highest spots in Columbia Borough, Mount Bethel Cemetery had for centuries been a revered place of final rest.
From Revolutionary War soldiers to poets, Civil War heroes to regular folks who served as the backbone of this town above the Susquehanna River, Mount Bethel gathered them all under the arching limbs of imposing trees.
By the early 1990s, though, it had become the kind of place you passed without a second glance while walking down Locust or Cherry streets.
“It was overgrown. There were tires, there were oil cans, there were beer bottles, there was a little bit of everything,” John Hinkle Jr. says. “It was an absolute state of disrepair.”
More than 10,000 people were buried in what had essentially become an open acreage of tangled weeds and trash.
Mount Bethel wouldn’t stay that way forever. Today, carefully edged grass hugs the hill. Age-worn stone markers are righted when they fall. Victorian “cradle” graves, which serve as part marker, part floral planter, are “adopted” and tended throughout the year.
But it takes constant vigilance by a nine-member board that has counted Hinkle among its members since its 1995 founding. It requires fundraising, and community involvement and volunteer days that bring out dozens of people to tackle projects.
And it embodies the dilemma many cemeteries in Lancaster County face:
Who will take on this job, and who will pay for it?
Some cemeteries are part of larger businesses — Conestoga Memorial Park in Lancaster is one such operation. Its 80 acres along Second Lock Road comprise just one of 26 memorial parks owned by CMS East across five states.
Lancaster also is full of tiny family cemeteries. A 2006 article in LNP by Mary Virginia Shelley of the Lancaster County Historical Society — now LancasterHistory — estimated there were nearly 300 private family plots in the county.
There also are hundreds of church graveyards, Shelley wrote — some no longer active and others continually growing.
Maintaining them, no matter their size, isn’t always the easiest task. The money needed to fulfill “perpetual care” for burial sites, says Philip Furman, is a real challenge.
Furman, a Leola-based funeral director, grew up in that town’s Zion Lutheran Church. When the original cemetery began filling up in the 1930s and 1940s, he says, church members began burying the deceased on property owned by the pastor. Today, that Trumbauer land houses not only a cemetery by the same name, but the church itself.
Michael Proch, a funeral director who works for Furman, is chairman of the Trumbauer Cemetery committee.
“We handle everything from grave layout to finances, record-keeping of the lots, contracting with mowers and diggers as needed,” Proch says. “(Trumbauer Cemetery) averages about 10 burials annually,” he says and, with five church members on the committee, “we might have to scramble if someone’s away on vacation and ... a grave needs to be laid out.”
And the cemetery relies on the generosity of church members, Furman says, to avoid financial shortfall.
“Here’s the perpetual care fund challenge,” he says. That money “needs to be invested in ‘safe’ things like bank CDs or something that’s ‘boring’ so it’ll be there,” and not invested in high-risk, high-reward financial products.” But the interest rate of return, as a result, is low, and doesn’t keep pace with the rate of inflation.
“You’ve got to pay the mower, pay the gardener, what have you,” Furman says, “so a lot of (cemeteries) end up requiring contributions to keep them solvent.”
Zion Lutheran itself relies on once- or twice-a-year appeals to church members to help supplement burial fees, Furman says.
Changing American burial practices too, Proch and Furman say, have required adaptations.
An increasing percentage of people indicate they’d like to be cremated after death, Furman notes. That can be a boon to a space-challenged cemetery — but most Lancaster County cemeteries don’t face overcrowding.
Instead, that percentage of cremations — about 60% of Lancaster County chooses that option, Furman says, echoing the American trend — means less-expensive burials. That, in turn, means less money earmarked for cemetery maintenance.
And if the family opts to scatter the ashes of their loved one, it means no cemetery plot has been purchased at all.
“People aren’t buying as many lots as they used to,” Furman says, “which depresses the amount of income coming in.
He notes one more issue facing cemeteries which were laid out more than a generation or two ago: Americans simply are getting bigger. “Which means the caskets are bigger, which means the vaults are bigger, which means those five graves (in a family plot) no longer may fit.
“Even being off an inch or two when laying out where a grave will be dug can compound problems for space issues,” he says.
Those space issues haven’t yet faced Patrick Eichelberger at St. Joseph’s New Catholic Cemetery in Bausman. He and his crew of two other full-timers maintain 20 acres — but they’re surrounded by 30 undeveloped acres, including a ballfield off Wabank Road, that are part of the property and someday could be converted to cemetery use.
The crew also takes care of two other active Catholic cemeteries in Lancaster — Saint Anthony’s and St. Mary’s — as well as the inactive Old St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s in Safe Harbor. All are part of the more than a dozen cemeteries overseen and maintained by the Diocese of Harrisburg.
That means money, while a concern, isn’t the pressing issue facing other private and church-owned cemeteries — to a point.
Still, Eichelberger’s staff is half the size it was when he started almost 18 years ago. And there’s still a strict schedule of cutting and trimming, April through November, that takes about 30 hours each time. There is a steady stream of interments to organize and oversee. There are old trees to tend to — lovely additions to old cemeteries, but vulnerable to storm damage. There are roadways and paths to plow in winter, biweekly mower servicing and machinery repairs.
One potential bone of contention: decorations that families wish to leave on graves.
The diocese has guidelines, recently renewed, which dictate when spring and fall cleanup will occur; when items must be removed for grass cutting; what may be planted or placed at gravesites; when floral arrangements and wreaths may be placed; and restrictions on flags, breakable items, lighting, fencing, stones and more.
“The Office of Catholic Cemeteries is instituting a renewed effort to adhere to these long-standing guidelines,” the posting reads. Eichelberger says many people don’t read those notices, and are caught unaware when their decorations and arrangements are removed.
Doing his job well requires a balancing act, Eichelberger says. He not only needs to make sure gravesites adhere to those rules, but also ensure those whose loved ones are buried in those cemeteries are satisfied that the gravesites are being well-tended.
At Mount Bethel, that work falls to volunteers.
Several members of the cemetery board of directors, are out several days a month to re-set gravestones and work on restoration. Over the years, fundraisers have made it possible to purchase heavy equipment such as a lift to help raise tombstones after repositioning, and a golf cart to get around an expansive property that’s surrounded by 3,000 feet of fencing.
The borough itself pitches in, board members say, and a small number of burials, perhaps six a year, contributes some money.
Other board members also pitch in with painting or gardening and, slowly, members of the larger Columbia community have become drawn to the history in their midst.
There’s Susanna Wright, a poet, friend of Benjamin Franklin and member of the family that not only founded Wright’s Ferry, now Columbia, but donated the land that’s now part of Mount Bethel’s Olde Brick Burial Yard and its Potter’s Field.
There’s Lloyd Mifflin, an artist and sonneteer whose grave is the site of an annual tribute by Columbia students.
Four of the men who burned the Columbia bridge in June 1863, thwarting the Confederate Army’s advance and setting up the Battle of Gettysburg, are buried at Mount Bethel.
Columbia’s first chief burgess; the first sheriff of Lancaster County; a writer of Hollywood screenplays ... all are part of what the nonprofit board, the Friends of Mount Bethel Cemetery and a growing number of community supporters are creating as a historical landmark.
It’s a way, board members say, to ensure that a cemetery with roots going back to 1730 not only survives, but thrives.
“We want to make sure that it’s here for generations to come because the generations past took care of it,” says cemetery board President Jane Moore.
“When I was an (elementary school teacher) here, I used to bring my fourth grade class over. It was probably the best-attended field trip for parents that we had all year,” Moore says.
“I would emphasize to the kids that this is a really important part of your history. You’ll find (borough) street names here; a lot of them found their own family names here. They have a connection ... and once you get somebody in here and they experience that history, they want to learn more.”