Restoring the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, Har Hasetim, is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle — except some pieces are buried underground or just altogether missing.
But the restoration process of the superannuated headstones is finally underway.
The plan to rejuvenate this cemetery — owned by adjacent Beth David Reform Congregation — to a haven of tranquility and a “natural wonder” began five years ago. Volunteers have since deeply weeded, revamped and mulched so they can enter the next chapter of fixing headstones.
Joe Ferrannini, owner of Grave Stone Matters, set up shop just inside the forested cemetery two weeks ago to begin repairing a small section of graves.
He recently completed restorations at the vandalized Mount Carmel Cemetery, but Har Hasetim is more of a guessing game.
“The reason it’s so tedious and so costly,” said Neil Sukonik, president of the Friends of the Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, “is that instead of mainly restoring headstones to their upright position that have been knocked over … many of the pieces are buried over the years from dirt that washed over them after they’ve fallen or broken apart.”
Stones are randomly piled on top of one another like an unstable tower of saltines — not all from the same marker.
“Some of the pieces belong, some don’t, some are missing,” Ferrannini said. “It becomes exploratory just to find what is the real story of these stones.”
Ferrannini worked on the property for about two weeks up until Thanksgiving, fixing a small “sample” section of the graveyard — a pilot project to show others what the rest of the plots will ultimately look like.
The close nature of the graves makes it difficult. They are “literally almost next to each other, head to toe,” he said. Many of the stones are marble, too — and thin ones at that — which doesn’t last as long as the common granite ones used since then.
Just three days into the process, Ferrannini said they were still discovering random pieces of stone thrown into the mix, most likely due to debris from tree limbs and lack of care over the years.
“You just don’t know what you’re dealing with,” he said.
Some pieces were found up to 15 feet away from each other — at Mount Carmel, too, pieces were 10 rows away from where they should have been.
“It’s almost like playing Concentration: Now where did I see what looked like that break?” said Dennis Montagna, program manager of monument research and preservation for the National Parks Service Northeast Region, whose office is located in Philadelphia.
Once repaired, the stones themselves will endure but the inscriptions will fade, so the Friends team documents visible names to add to their archive.
“No matter what, you’ve got the information,” Montagna said, “so when the stones slowly [fade] away, you still know who was here and what it said.”
The cemetery dates to an era known for burial societies, in which families would pay for plots and maintenance annually so funeral expenses were ultimately covered when necessary.
The people buried at Har Hasetim were 1890s-era immigrants from Eastern Europe. They settled in South Philadelphia, but the burial society was located in Gladwyne, accessible by horse-and-buggy.
The cemetery was abandoned in 1945 up until 10 years ago, when the revitalization project was just a lofty idea.
“This was, for them, the story of these immigrants who came over,” Sukonik noted of the traditional burial society. “This is who they are; this is where they’re buried.”
The goal is to re-establish the site over as many years as needed, with costs upward of $500,000, mainly from donors.
“We need to get the graves stabilized, first, to prevent additional damage, but second, to restore dignity to the people who are buried here,” Sukonik said. “That’s what’s going to take years and the money.”
Other grand plans include adding a fountain, an open meadow, information kiosks and a lower-access driveway.
“But none of that really matters if we don’t get the graves stabilized and restored properly,” Sukonik noted. “At its heart, it’s still a cemetery,” Montagna said.
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