In the July 7 Sunday LNP, staff writer Jennifer Kopf wrote about churches, volunteers and communities contributing to the upkeep of local cemeteries. It’s a task with its own host of challenges in the 21st century.
To get an idea of how much cemetery maintenance we could be talking about, here are some numbers:
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, Kopf noted.
There also are hundreds of church graveyards as well — some inactive and others continually growing.
And that’s not even including the larger cemeteries.
Maintaining these, no matter their size, isn’t easy, as Leola-based funeral director Philip Furman told LNP. Coming up with the money needed to fulfill “perpetual care” for burial sites can be a struggle.
“Here’s the perpetual care fund challenge,” he said. 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 is low and doesn’t keep pace with inflation.
“You’ve got to pay the mower, pay the gardener, what have you,” Furman said, “so a lot of (cemeteries) end up requiring contributions to keep them solvent.”
Trumbauer Cemetery in Leola, for example, relies on once- or twice-a-year appeals to members of Zion Lutheran Church, Furman and cemetery board Chairman Michael Proch told LNP.
In the early 1990s, Columbia’s historic Mount Bethel Cemetery, with roots dating back to 1730, had become “the kind of place you passed without a second glance while walking down Locust or Cherry streets,” Kopf wrote.
“It was overgrown. There were tires, there were oil cans, there were beer bottles, there was a little bit of everything,” John Hinkle Jr. said. “It was an absolute state of disrepair.”
But Mount Bethel wouldn’t stay that way, thanks to determined volunteers. Today, age-worn stone markers are pushed upright again when they fall, and Victorian “cradle” graves — that is, basin-like graves — are “adopted” and tended throughout the year.
But it takes vigilance by the nine-member board, including Hinkle, as well as fundraising, community involvement and volunteer days that bring out dozens of people to help.
We applaud the Mount Bethel board members and all the other volunteers and groups throughout the county who are dedicated to saving and preserving our cemeteries.
How we care for the graves in our midst — no matter the earthly status of the deceased — says a lot about who we are as a people.
Tending to these cemeteries honors the generations that have gone before. It demonstrates our level of stewardship. It conveys the message that no one will be forgotten.
Patrick Eichelberger at St. Joseph’s New Catholic Cemetery in Bausman and his crew of two other full-timers don’t necessarily have the same challenges in maintaining that cemetery’s 20 acres.
But they also take care of two other active Catholic cemeteries in Lancaster — St. 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, Kopf noted.
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, spring through fall, that takes about 30 hours each time. There are interments to organize and oversee, old trees to tend to, roadways and paths to plow in winter, biweekly mower servicing and machinery repairs.
At Mount Bethel Cemetery, where figures like poet Susanna Wright and artist Lloyd Mifflin are buried, several members of its board of directors are out several days a month to reset gravestones and work on restoration. Over the years, fundraisers have made it possible to buy heavy equipment such as a lift to help raise tombstones, Kopf reported, and a golf cart to get around.
Columbia borough pitches in, too, and a small number of annual burials contributes some funds.
“We want to make sure that it’s here for generations to come because the generations past took care of it,” cemetery board President Jane Moore, a teacher, told Kopf.
“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 (students) 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.”
Cemeteries bind us to our roots.
Caring for them should never be an afterthought, and we encourage our readers to do what they can in this effort. No contribution is too small.