Since the place was officially abandoned a few months ago, Mt. Moriah's 380 acres (Pennsylvania’s largest cemetery, opened in 1855) have met spring and summer with a vengeance. Trees, grass, honeysuckle and poison ivy grow rampant, all but covering even the part of the cemetery that was sort of being maintained. When some plot owners recently filed a lawsuit against this inner city cemetery for negligence, the man and woman who worked in the office packed up and left. As the city has not been able to identify any actual owners, my guess is that these people who were taking money for burials over the past however many years (some say since the 1970s), were just squatters! What a way to make a buck! Find an abandoned cemetery and bury people! You pay for the backhoe, keep the grass cut on a few acres, and pocket the profits! No taxes or license fees, nothing! So the city finds itself with a huge eyesore with many irate citizens and plotholders on its hands.
|Trash collecting in the cemetery|
|Tires and Tombstones|
|Registering for the Mount Moriah Cemetery Clean-Up Day|
|Raked piles of dried grass|
I started thinking that maybe a controlled burn in the place would make more sense than all this raking (which was tough work, by the way, given all the tangles of vines and other ground cover). Really, all we were doing was removing the dead grass and giving breathing space to the live grass and weeds below − so that it would all grow faster! A sort of prairie fire would renew the place, burn the trees and weeds, which I was told was actually suggested by the fire department. They wouldn’t have to worry about hurting the wild pit bulls – one of the SERVE volunteers told me the city had them removed (not sure about the coyotes, though). The burn idea was shelved not because it was technically unfeasible, but because it was esthetically, shall we say, Armageddon-like. The sight of a cemetery on fire might not sit too well with the public, or the neighbors, for that matter. (Besides, Philadelphia doesn’t need another out-of-control ‘MOVE-style’ inferno.) Also, it was pointed out that the tombstones and monuments would be blackened in the process, and then would require cleaning.
So about 8:30 a.m. everyone started into it. About 8:45, the grunting and groaning began. More than one person said, “I should’ve worked out for a week before doing this!” Really, it was hard work, especially in the hot sun. My group was working around the old gatehouse where the Fox News truck was filming. My wife asked me later that day if it was emotional, doing this kind of work.
I’m not a real emotional kind of guy, but it did give me an odd feeling scraping unseen headstones with a rake - a strange sound that always caught me off guard. They'd been toppled over and lay buried in the grass. I never thought about the insensitivity of vandals in this way – if you’re going to knock over a gravestone, how about doing it so it lands face-up? That way when people come looking for their ancestors’ graves (as many people did today), they’d be more likely to find them.
|Filling a Sunken Grave|
|Mayor Nutter, at right|
|Father Time, engulphed|
But what might happen is local labor unions would balk, like the Streets Department did when the idea was brought up to use prisoners to do the grounds crew clean-up and grass cutting we were doing. That would go against the contract, take work away from them! The fact that the city doesn’t have the money to pay people to do this doesn’t enter into the equation.
|Freeing tombstone from its arboreal prison|
Our tour leader had been here many times with two of his Masonic lodge members to hack out trees growing around various monuments in that area, so he knew the terrain as well as I did. It seemed there were a few guys in the group who had never been back there in the deep woods, so we all took a hike. Always interesting to see the facial expressions and hear the exclamations of first-timers here when they see the magnificent family memorials in the woods, the crazy foliage smothering giant monuments.
|Burned-out car, hung up on tombstone|
|Land of the Lost|
For the past eight years, these three guys from the local Pennsylvania Masonic lodge would come here a few times each year to saw down trees from around various monuments and carry away trash from the area. One time two of them were in the circle working with machetes and a chainsaw, and unwittingly provided some visitors with a close encounter they’ll never forget. For years, hookers would bring their johns to the Circle of Saint John (no pun intended) by car to do their thing (which you can't help seeing if you spend any time in this cemetery). While they were there, a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere as they were working. They looked up – while brandishing the machete and chainsaw – only to see the horrified look on the faces of the couple in the truck! They said the hooker started screaming and the driver hit the gas and you never SAW a vehicle go so fast in reverse!
As we headed back through the wooded cemetery roads, we came upon two small groups of our fellow volunteers who were lost. People think I exaggerate the dangers of this place, but even on a bright sunny day, you can feel strangely vulnerable here. As this thought occurred to me, I realized this is one of the few times in recent memory that I’ve ventured into Mt. Moriah without a weapon! Maybe if the cleanup continues (as its scheduled to) each month, there may come a time when people can safely visit this place and enjoy the history, nature, art, and architecture it has to offer.
After the clean-up, I was exhausted. Although I brought all my serious cameras, they sat in the trunk of my car parked on 62th Street. The photos you see here were taken with my little digital Panasonic point-and-shoot, between swigs of water or bandaging the calluses on my hands.
- Pictures from the July 16th Clean-Up: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.244456388917354.72753.187610047935322
- Friends of Mount Moriah: http://www.friendsofmountmoriahcemetery.org/
- Build a Fence and Save the Graves: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Build-A-Fence-SAVE-the-Graves-at-Mount-Moriah-Cemetery/179749568744238
- CBSPhilly - http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2011/07/16/volunteers-gather-to-clean-up-southwest-philadelphias-mount-moriah-cemetery/
- NBC Philadelphia - http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Mount-Moriah-Cemetery-Cleanup-Begins--125693843.html
- Philly.com - http://articles.philly.com/2011-07-15/news/29776938_1_grave-condition-long-term-orphans-court
Past blogs documenting trips to Mount Moriah Cemetery, by Ed Snyder:
No One Hears an Abandoned Cemetery Scream
Hell Hounds of the Abandoned Cemetery
Pit Bulls, Deer Ticks, and Poison Ivy – The Allure of the Abandoned Cemetery