A dark gray sky loomed over Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby on a September evening, where thousands of tombstones of a similar hue dot the massive graveyard.
Har Jehuda has been in operation since 1896 and, as such, it has served large swaths of the local Jewish community. It is one of the places generations of Jews have buried their loved ones, entrusted by families to honor the dead.
The first rows of tombstones at the entrance of Gate 1 are well-preserved, but a walk through the rain-soaked sidewalks reveals other plots that haven’t been given the same treatment. Overgrown grass blocks the names on some tombstones; others have fallen to the ground. A furry animal scurries into an opening in the ground beside one such stone.
Parts of the cemetery are in better shape. Grass is cut and headstones are in place. But much of it is disheveled, like an eerie scene out of a horror movie. Vegetation sprouts in the sidewalks and weeds grow uninhibited.
In the back of the cemetery, a pair of trees have snapped at their roots, their trunks resting on some tombstones and their branches skimming even more.
Har Jehuda, whose president, Larry Moskowitz, declined to comment on its condition, is hardly the only local cemetery facing maintenance issues. Mount Jacob Cemetery in Darby Township also has overgrown grass and fallen tombstones, which cemetery president Lenore Horowitz chalked up, in part, to seemingly never-ending rainfall in recent months.
“We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” she said.
And Jewish cemeteries sometimes attract anti-Semitic vandals who traffic in hate-fueled tombstone toppling. There are no reports of that happening at Har Jehuda, though.
Families are often offered two options for maintenance payments by cemeteries. There are perpetual care fees, which are paid up front and placed into a sequestered account and aren’t supposed to be touched by the cemeteries. There is also the option to pay the cemetery annually for the same services, but Horowitz said people sometimes neglect to pay those fees.
That doesn’t excuse the cemetery from mowing the lawn, she insisted. But it can make things tricky when grass needs to be sodded again.
Horowitz said Mount Jacob hires an outside landscaper to mow its grass, and three times this year the landscaper’s machine has been towed out because it got stuck in the soggy ground. She said Mount Jacob makes efforts to pick up stones that have fallen, but refrain from touching them until talking to families — some of which have moved away and not provided new contact information.
“Trust me, it breaks my heart, because we’re in charge of these families’ loved ones,” Horowitz said. “I wish people would understand the rain, [with] the grass — it’s killed us.”
The Philadelphia area has experienced higher than normal precipitation this year, WHYY reported. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows 33 inches of precipitation fell on the city between January and July, while there were 40 total inches of rain in 2017. Frequent rainfall continued into August and September.
It’s unclear what is responsible for the conditions at Har Jehuda.
Malcolm Hoenlein, former executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, visited the cemetery in mid-August. Both of his parents are buried at Har Jehuda.
“This is really outrageous,” Hoenlein said. He said the cemetery had always been well-maintained, and was in much better shape as recently as six months prior to his most recent visit.
Adam Levine, fifth-generation owner/partner of Joseph Levine & Sons, which operates Haym Salomon Memorial Park in Frazer, said he takes pride in the maintenance of his family’s cemetery.
“Some cemeteries have the custom of only cutting the grass when they’re having a funeral in the section,” Levine said. “We tend to believe Haym Salomon is the nicest and well-maintained. I can [also] say this is the rainiest season we’ve had that we can remember. It’s been tough to stay on top of the grass. We also bring outside companies in, and we fertilize. We have grass companies that come and do grub control.”
Other cemeteries aren’t as fortunate, he said: “They don’t maintain much of the cemetery. That’s some of the older ones, that can’t afford to cut their grass on a regular basis.”
Levine said that when his family purchased the cemetery in 1986, many of the perpetual care funds were depleted, and so the cemetery worked to replenish them.
“We invest the proper amount of all our funds,” he said. “We take pride in bringing those funds to more than standard amounts. … to have my children and future generations be able to provide for families throughout the Philadelphia community.”
Administration at Mount Jacob Cemetery has those same goals. But complications persist.
“We’re a mom-and-pop cemetery and we rely on the annual care [fees],” Horowitz said. “Our priority is still getting done everything that we can.”