Har Jehuda Cemetery President Larry Moskowitz knows conditions at the Upper Darby cemetery are a bit shabby.
He knows that complaints are on the rise and that maintenance has been deferred.
And he knows that this article will prompt even more complaints.
But he said his skeleton staff is doing the best it can, despite changing economics that make running and maintaining a cemetery increasingly difficult.
“It’s very emotional for me because I’ve been around it so long,” Moskowitz said. “I love it and it’s in our blood. I was charged in 1981 with taking care of the place, and that’s what I will continue to do.”
Moskowitz is the fourth generation in his family to care for the 30-acre cemetery along Lansdowne Avenue that holds 20,000 graves. His great-grandfather, Jehuda Moskowitz, was part of the chevra kadisha that founded the cemetery in 1896.
The cemetery’s sheer age increases the need for upkeep, but so is the decline in the number of people being buried. A decade ago, the cemetery buried 150 people a year; last year, there were just 30.
“When your burial revenue drops by 70%, you don’t have what you think you have,” he said.
Older cemeteries with few new burials have less money coming in and tend to exhaust their perpetual care funds.
Those trends may worsen, according to the National Funeral Directors Association Cremation and Burial Report. The 2020 cremation rate was 56%, up 8% from 2015, and the organization projects that by 2035 nearly 80% of Americans will be cremated.
Poor cemetery conditions aren’t limited to the Philadelphia area — or strictly to Jewish cemeteries, as the Lebanon Daily News and The Morning Call have reported in recent months.
The Exponent previously wrote about poor conditions at Har Jehuda in September 2018. At that time, overgrown grass obscured many tombstones and some markers had fallen to the ground. Vegetation had sprouted in the sidewalks and weeds grew uninhibited in the cemetery.
A visit to the cemetery on Jan. 3 showed the grass only slightly overgrown, but markers here and there had fallen or were leaning. On one edge of the cemetery, in an older section, many tombstones were engulfed with vegetation.
That’s what’s frustrated Karen and Jeff Albert of Dresher. His great-grandmother Mollie Silverman and his great-uncle Jacob Albert are buried there.
While Jacob Albert’s grave is in good condition, Silverman’s grave is partially obscured by tree vines and vegetation the family says is poison sumac. The Alberts’ efforts at genealogy are thwarted because they can’t read the Hebrew inscribed on the tombstone, which dates to 1926.
“I can’t get within 10 feet of it,” Jeff Albert said.
The Alberts said they’ve been in touch with cemetery management and are willing to be patient, but are frustrated nonetheless.
“It’s been a three-year slog,” Jeff Albert said.
Meantime, Gail Dubin of Wynnewood and her sister, Faith Reese, said they have gotten no response as they seek to have the area around their parents’ graves updated. Beatrice R. and Louis L. Gershman died within three weeks of each other in 2012.
Dubin said conditions were fine at first, but have deteriorated in the past 18 months.
“It’s a lack of respect,” she said of the cemetery conditions.
Moskowitz said the end of growing season will enable the cemetery to catch up on some of the maintenance.
“We’re in a tough spot, but we’re working our butts off,” he said. “It takes us a while to get from point A to point Z.”
Har Jehuda is far from the only older Jewish cemetery that has drawn complaints in recent years.
In 2015, the Exponent wrote about poor conditions at Har Zion Cemetery in Darby. In 2020, both Har Nebo Cemetery and Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia were criticized because of poor conditions and closed gates. Owner Richard Levy attributed the problems to the coronavirus.
Levy was pushed by Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and state Rep. Jared Solomon, among others, to take care of the cemeteries. Jewish Federation helped arrange for a landscaping crew to cut the grass over the summer, but visitors say the cemeteries remain in overall poor condition.
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