Group trying to help Rose Hill Cemetery

Courtesy photo / Philip Weyant renovates the area around the Rose Hill Cemetery sign along with his dad, Rich, at the cemetery’s entrance. A group of volunteers concerned about the frequently unkempt appearance of the 112-year-old cemetery has undertaken a reorganization project with cooperation from existing management in hopes of keeping it trim.

Cleanup days organized by enthusiastic volunteers can help old cemeteries with inadequate maintenance funds look good upon occasion.

But grass keeps growing, trees grow old and die, and enthusiasm can only go so far.

So a group of volunteers concerned about the frequently unkempt appearance of 112-year-old Rose Hill Cemetery has undertaken a reorganization project with cooperation from existing management in hopes of keeping that cemetery trim for the foreseeable future.

There was a cleanup day last summer at Rose Hill that helped, organized by Camp Hill resident Fred Lauver, who recruited workers and raised about $1,000 through Facebook. A similar cleanup day a couple of weeks ago was a little different, in that some of the participants by then had developed a strategy to make improvements sustainable, according to Cindy Beauchamp, an area resident with family members buried at Rose Hill.

Those are the “core group,” and they’re “sticking to it,” Beauchamp said.

Courtesy photo / A group of volunteers at Rose Hill Cemetery has reorganized two existing corporations to take care of the 112-year-old graveyard.

Their “spark plug” is Ed Mackey, an Altoona native who lives in Indiana, Pa., and whose parents and grandparents are buried at Rose Hill, according to Bill Haberstroh, whose law firm Mackey has hired for the legal reorganization that has become the foundation for the hoped-for changes.

Mackey grew inspired to help when he returned for a visit to his family’s graves and was appalled enough to declare to himself that he didn’t want to be buried there.

With the help of the law firm, the new group recently transformed two existing corporations that ran the cemetery into two new corporations — one to operate the cemetery and one to raise funds, according to Haberstroh and Mackey.

In contrast to the previous stock ownership, the new fundraising corporation will be non-stock, so contributions will be tax-deductible, Haberstroh said.

Fred “Rick” Albright, who has been in charge of the cemetery for years and who was one of the two stockholders previously, is “in accord” with what’s happening, according to Haberstroh.

He’ll be chairman and president of both the new corporations, at the insistence of Mackey.

“He operated this for so many years,” Mackey said. “He’s a good man, and I didn’t want to detract from his role.”

Mackey talked him into accepting the posts, Albright said.

Mackey will be chairman of both boards.

Rick’s wife, Jean, who keeps the books; Andy Albright, Rick’s son, who will be responsible for personnel; Richard Weyant, a physically powerful and resourceful man “who knows how to get things done,” according to Mackey; Beauchamp and Mackey’s brother, William, will be the other members of the operating corporation.

Andy Albright, Weyant and Beauchamp will be the other members of the fundraising corporation.

Albright has a mobility problem that has made it difficult for him to supervise work at the cemetery in recent times, Mackey said.

“He has been trying to do the best he can with very little,” Beauchamp said.

In 2015, the cemetery ran a deficit of about $8,000, with total revenues of $29,000, according to the organization’s report to the IRS. Total assets at the end of the year were $189,000, according to the report.

That includes $85,000 in a perpetual care fund, the principal of which the organization can’t touch, by law, Albright said.

It has been “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for him in recent years, as he gets complaints when maintenance lags, then complaints when he spends what critics think is too much to keep up the grounds, Albright said.

The basic problem was the initial setup, whereby people paid a little — say $35 — for a plot with room for eight graves, then never paid the annual care fee that was due after 10 years, Albright said.

That wasn’t a problem at first, because there were hundreds of burials per year, he said.

Even when buyers bought perpetual care, their payments were not enough, ultimately, to fund later maintenance, given interest rates on investments and the cost of labor and equipment, Mackey said.

Later reforms led to the requirement for cemeteries to set aside 15 percent for future maintenance, but by then it was too late, according to Albright.

The new operating corporation’s focus will be on keeping the grass cut, replacing the many unsound trees on the 53-acre grounds, repairing the many circuitous driveways and erecting signs so visitors can find their way around and locate graves, Mackey said.

A trip through the cemetery makes clear that the maintenance challenge is prodigious, as despite the recent cleanup day, there are areas that remain unkempt, with high weeds, tilting gravestones, sunken terrain, deteriorated trees and potholed roads.

The new organization will compensate employees — there are currently two full-timers — not by hours worked, but work accomplished, following an evaluation to determine how much time it should take to do certain tasks, according to Mackey.

“We need to gain control,” Mackey said.

The new organization also plans to acquire better equipment, including superior trimmers and zero-turn mowers that are more efficient than the tractors used by the current workers, because by turning on their own radii, they get closer to obstacles and minimize the need for remowing areas already mowed, said Mackey and Weyant.

The new organization plans to replace 70 to 90 percent of the trees — sycamores, Norway maples and silver maples — that are not worth keeping, according to a tree expert who checked out the cemetery, Mackey said.

The replacement will not grow beyond 20 feet, to minimize future maintenance costs, Mackey said.

From a distance, the trees don’t look bad, but up close, there are splits and broken limbs galore.

A former business client of Mackey’s may be able to remove the trees and use their ground up wood for his company, thus eliminating the cost, Mackey said.

More than 100 replacement trees will be necessary, at $50 to $100 each, with additional costs for stump grinding and planting, Weyant said.

The organization will patch the roads or pave them if necessary, reset gravestones with a resetting machine it hopes to acquire, install a section directory and a new set of sections signs mounted on poles to replace the set now mounted on trees, Mackey said.

The new operating corporation plans to retain the current employees, according to Beauchamp.

The new fundraising corporation needs to get about its business quickly, she said.

There are still graves to be sold at Rose Hill, but that can happen only if buyers approach the cemetery, as the law disallows the cemetery to solicit.

Solicitation requires a Realtor’s license, and local real estate agents say there isn’t a profit to be made that way with old cemeteries.

When Weyant was a kid, Rose Hill looked “like the most pristine cemetery.”

In recent times, there have been “a lot of people disheartened by what they have seen there,” he said.

He’s hoping to help it become pristine once again.

“We’ve got a pretty solid group,” he said.