Maintaining sacred grounds

Most of us welcome the recent nice weather, after a vicious winter.

Rick Albright, however, has misgivings.

The president of Rose Hill Cemetery’s board of directors can’t find a crew to take care of the grounds this spring, after retirements did away with last year’s group.

The cemetery’s pitifully small trust-fund interest, coupled with a lack of lot sales, leaves little money to pay for help, even if he can find it.

“I almost hate to see the spring come,” Albright said last week.

But he brightened after learning that a volunteer group that took charge of derelict Oak Ridge Cemetery last fall has reorganized and wants to expand its responsibilities to include other moribund cemetery operations.

“If we could get some volunteers, that would be great,” Albright said.

It’s been arranged: Volunteers Unite to Clean Up Altoona Pa. Cemeteries will not only be mowing, trimming and brush-whacking at Oak Ridge this spring, but also at Albright’s Rose Hill, beginning May 17, according to Jennifer Kasman, an Altoona native living in Florida, who is the volunteer group’s spokeswoman.

There’s a similar hope for Fairview Cemetery behind UPMC Altoona.

“We’d love to have their help,” said Fairview’s director-in-charge Susan Kimblerly, when told of the volunteer group’s intentions.

Fairview once employed 20 groundskeepers in summer for its 10 acres but now gets by with a staff of one and a contractor hired for six annual cuttings.

It’s not enough.

The place to be

At one time, Rose Hill was “the place to be in Altoona,” according to Albright.

Like Calvary or Alto-Reste now, he said.

There were 30 to 40 burials a month.

Now there are only a dozen a year, and the cemetery needs to hire out to dig them, having lost its backhoe in a fire in the 1970s.

In Rose Hill’s prime, streetcar tracks ran to the gate, and streetcars occasionally served as hearses, Albright said.

But in the old days, graves went dirt cheap.

At one time, you could buy a set of eight gravesites for $3, and burials cost just 50 cents, according to Albright.

Perpetual care was optional and didn’t cost much.

Some families would buy a set of sites, they’d fill them up, then “walk away,” he said.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the state passed a law requiring cemeteries to set aside funding for maintenance, Albright said.

Ultimately, the cemetery needs to keep all the graves trim, anyway, because otherwise, it would be an absurd “checkerboard,” he said.

The cemetery’s most recent publicly available federal tax return shows that Rose Hill began 2012 with a $241,000 fund and ended it with $11,000 less.

There are still plenty of lots available on the cemetery’s 53 developed acres – despite 18,000 filled graves – and Albright sells them when people inquire.

But the cemetery solicit lot sales without a real estate license, and those licenses are expensive, Albright said.

Moreover, real estate agents can make more selling homes, he said.

Members of Albright’s family are buried there, and his grandfather and father were board members.

“I love this cemetery,” Albright said.

He’d like to restore “the glory days,” knows that’s not going to happen, but at least wants to keep the grounds respectable.

He’s had good and reliable workers, but they aged like the cemetery itself and are no longer on the job.

When there are maintenance lapses – such as when the four-man crew last year had to suspend mowing to cut up downed trees – the critics bury him.

“People get downright nasty,” Albright said.

No solution

Fairview sells less than a lot per year nowadays.

“Would you want to be buried in that area?” Kimberly asked rhetorically, referring to the vandalism-prone neighborhood.

There are also fewer than 10 burials annually.

“That just isn’t cutting it,” she said.

The $7 someone might have paid for perpetual care deep in the last century seems pathetic when compared to today’s prices.

And the trust fund is “dwindling.”

That fund used once got a decent return, but no longer.

The grounds are in need of vandalism repairs.

Litter needs to be picked up outside the perimeter fence.

Then there are “memorials” left by a storm a couple years ago – root systems from upended trees “as big as dump trucks,” Kimberly said.

What’s the long-term solution?

“It’s sort of like the [wider] world,” Kimberly said. “There is none.”

“Eventually this happens to every cemetery,” she said.

Forgotten roots

The volunteer group has more than 350 members, according to Kasman.

Larry Stultz of Perry County is one.

“I’ve always played in cemeteries, [including], yes, Oak Ridge, as a youngster,” Stultz wrote in an email.

Stultz helps maintain an abandoned cemetery that dates to the Revolutionary period near where he lives.

He blames “families moving on and really forgetting their roots” for the general problem.

“I just feel the need to help restore and maintain these places,” he said.

Kasman is a daughter of the late local historian John Conlon and believes the cemetery group plays a role like her father did – coming “together in a most unique way to give back to the community and preserve our rich history.”

Emblematic of the devotion she feels is her arranging for a 1965 death date to be engraved on the Oak Ridge tombstone of Clementine Kirstner, “who had no family to see to it.”

That gravesite has “become our little mascot,” she said.

The group members are willing to sign liability waivers before working.

The group is accepting donations of used lawn equipment – including mowers and trimmers – provided they’re working or repairable, Kasman said.

“We are such a willing group of folks,” Kasman said.

“We feed everybody. We have a good time,” said group member Henry Benton of the work parties. “The possibilities are endless,” he added.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.