Citizen groups join religious institutions in caring for area cemeteries

A few months ago, Charlottesville Cemetery in Tipton looked nearly abandoned. Headstones were either toppled over or stuck out of the ground unevenly, the yellowed grass looked like it hadn’t been cut in months, and there were soiled American flags piled up in a maintenance shed.

Then, a group of concerned citizens stepped in and decided to assume responsibility of the cemetery’s physical maintenance and monetary assets.

Many of them said they felt a responsibility to the place because friends and family members are buried there, and they themselves want Charlottesville Cemetery to be their final resting place.

“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” said Diana Bartlebaugh, the group’s vice president.

It’s taken more than two months of work, and the group still has a long way to go, but getting it off the ground might be the easy part. As many church organizations can attest, it takes a lot of time and money to manage a cemetery.

Working with less

Henry Weinberg has chaired Agudath Achim Congregation’s cemetery committee for more than 30 years, and in that time he has seen a lot of changes.

The cemetery is funded through plot purchases and donations from the congregation but requires an outside lawn service to mow the grass twice a month and keep up with maintenance – although Weinberg is often there himself making sure everything meets his standards.

But because of a decline in Altoona’s Jewish population, Weinberg said it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep up.

The perpetual-care fund, paid into by plot purchasers years ago, wouldn’t pay for a drop of fuel needed to mow the grass now, he said, and the cemetery has seen no more than five or six burials within the past year.

“The cost of maintaining it for a year is very high,” he said.

While he wouldn’t disclose an exact figure, he said expenses are several times higher than the $1,800 per year paid out for Charlottesville’s care.

“[We’re] not dealing with small numbers,” he said.

To make matters worse, the descendants of those buried there often have moved out of the area, Weinberg said, or perhaps have died. Without a way to contact them, he can’t ask for contributions to care for their relatives’ final resting place.

However, congregation members continue to make sure the cemetery looks good, Weinberg said, and he hopes to see enough plot purchases to sustain the fund.

Comfort in numbers

While most churches are struggling, some cemeteries are doing well for now. Catholic churches, particularly members within the eight-county Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, have a central organization to keep them running.

Stan Krish, a volunteer at SS. Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Cemetery, said in more than 30 years of working at the cemetery, it doesn’t seem that much has changed.

When SS. Peter and Paul’s congregation merged with St. Leo’s in 1995 to form Our Lady of Fatima parish in Altoona, the new church continued care for its three-acre cemetery and even started to see additional burials, he said.

“What we’re seeing is people being brought in from other churches,” Krish noted, whether to be buried near family members and friends or just to be closer to the area where they grew up.

As with many other cemeteries, an outside lawn-care company is contracted to mow the grass, with Krish and his sons volunteering time to backfill the graves and spread seeds.

The diocese also is a great source, Krish said, producing cemetery-care guidelines and helping the group set up an endowment fund in the 1990s.

Father Sean Code, pastor at St. Joan of Arc in Frugality and chairman of the Diocesan Cemetery Commission, said each Catholic cemetery operates under the individual parish with which it is associated.

But with church closures around the area and merging parishes, in some cases a pastor and his congregation have been charged with caring for more than one.

Northern Cambria’s Prince of Peace parish formed in July 2000, the merger of five Catholic churches under Pastor Larry Lacovic, and over time the parish also decided to merge the financial operations of all five cemeteries: Mount Carmel, St. John the Baptist, St. Stanislaus Koska, Holy Cross and St. Patrick.

That isn’t always the case, he said, pointing to the 2009 merger of Johnstown’s Cambria City churches, where St. Rochus, St. Columba, St. Stephen, SS. Casimir and Emerich and Immaculate Conception became Resurrection Parish.

Those cemeteries still are financially independent, Code said, whereas Prince of Peace has become one both “financially and spiritually.”

Lacovic said the church formed an umbrella organization seven or eight years ago and created an 11-person committee, comprised of himself as spiritual adviser and two members from each former congregation.

It was a delicate process, he said, because each cemetery had its own financial records and accounts. Some were big, and some were small.

“It took some negotiating,” he said.

While the merger meant fewer churches, Lacovic said there is still some comfort in numbers, and the large single congregation has done a good job at maintaining its cemeteries.

Each has its own caretaker, paid by the church to cut several acres of grass and trim around monuments, which Lacovic said is the most expensive and time-consuming job.

Total maintenance costs top $20,000 each year for all five, and with a low interest rate in a perpetual-care fund, “we’re gradually losing our savings, just a fraction every year” to keep up, he said.

Lacovic estimated the congregation’s fund can last another generation before the money is gone, but he expects to hold a special fundraiser to replenish some of the account once the economy improves.

Code also said that there is security in knowing that should a parish close, its property, finances and obligations become the responsibility of another parish.

“It’s a sacred space,” just like a church, Code said, and the religious nature of the property “encourages us to be very attentive to the maintenance of it, the management of it.”

The diocese also is fortunate that there are no known cases where a church cemetery account balance is zero, and despite what Code called the clear reality of declining church attendance, their cemeteries are not suffering.

A community effort

Other cemetery groups have gotten large gifts able to sustain them.

Longtime volunteer John Bush has been on the Mount Pleasant United Church of Christ cemetery board in Martinsburg since his father, himself a longtime board member, died in 1966.

Bush said the cemetery usually gets between four and six burials a year, with a portion of the plot cost put into a perpetual-care fund.

But the church also got very lucky, he said, when a family made a donation earmarked for cemetery use in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

The $5,000 donation back then has been able to sustain the fund since, he said, and “we’d be in bad shape if it wasn’t for that.”

Pete Dutrow, member of Tyrone’s Grandview Cemetery association, said the seven-and-a-half acre property is tended to regularly by volunteers, many of whom donate time as well as their own supplies to mow and trim weeds.

“Our expenses are determined by how much grass we have to mow, and that’s determined by the weather,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of expenses [with the association] because we do most of the work ourselves.”

Dutrow also said the group has received four or five donated lawnmowers.

“We’re not too proud [to accept gifts],” he said.

Association secretary Darlene Cupp also said the Charlottesville association is, in fact, better off than Grandview’s was when it started. She said her group had far less than the $13,000 in Charlottesville’s perpetual-care fund.

“We didn’t have a cent,” she said.

But the group continues to build on its finances with community support and donations.

“People in town know what we’re doing” and offer help, Dutrow said, “but we are running on a shoestring budget. … We get very little return on our investments.”

Making progress

Even on a tight budget, structured organizations can do a lot to care for a cemetery. It’s whenever a church ceases to exist or the group lacks manpower that weeds begin to spring up and nature tries to take the land back.

At a June 12 Charlottesville meeting, Bellwood-Antis Historical Society President Mary Brunner brought up Zion Cemetery near the former Fuoss Mills.

“That’s an old, old cemetery,” she said, which has graves dating back to the early 1800s and possible even 1700s, and once was under a Lutheran church’s care. The church no longer exists, she said, and there’s no one around to take up the charge.

Brunner said she called in a Boy Scout troop a few years ago to clean it up, but it’s become overgrown with Briars and poison ivy.

Knowing the difficult task that lies ahead, the small group Friends of the Charlottesville Cemetery Inc, which. recently voted to establish itself as a nonprofit corporation, plans to plod ahead.

Bellwood attorney Perry Flaugh, who is advising the group, told them the next step is filing for an employer-identification number from the Internal Revenue Service so it can open a checking account and begin fundraising.

It’s also looking at account options, but with a 4 percent return on its perpetual-care fund, the group is off to a decent start.

Once the group reaches $25,000, Flaugh said it can file paperwork to become a nonprofit corporation and ask a judge to sign the cemetery deed over to them, completing the transition to ownership.

The last step is reaching $50,000 to be allowed to sell plots.

From that point on, in the eyes of the state, the group should have enough money to stay afloat, Flaugh said, although it’s got a long road ahead of them.

In the meantime, volunteers continue to mow and trim weeds and have received donations in the form of free services, including a lawn-care company cutting down an obstructive tree free of charge.

Bartlebaugh also is asking a contracting company to donate leftover stone to cover the cemetery’s worn down gravel road.

“It’s back to the freebies. Any freebies you can get,” she said.

Dedication to loved ones and what the cemetery represents is pushing them forward, something Weinberg said he can appreciate.

Agudath Achim Cemetery looks so nice, he said, because the committee continues to work hard and “it’s done without question.”

He said he thinks not only of his parents buried at the cemetery, but of other congregation members who might come by to see how it looks. He takes great pride in its appearance, he said.

“Indubitably, we think of our loved ones and see that when family members come, they feel gratified that their loved ones are resting in peace,” he said.