Community frustrations toward Har Nebo and Mount Carmel cemeteries in Philadelphia have grown in recent weeks, as the cemeteries have closed their gates to the public on all days except Sunday, preventing families from visiting loved ones.
Others are concerned about the ongoing inconsistent maintenance of the cemeteries’ grounds.
Mindy Manhoff, who moved from the Philadelphia area to Florida several years ago, flew back last year to visit the grave of her son, who died at age 3, at Mount Carmel. When she arrived, “the lawn was ridiculously high and unkempt.”
In November, Bala Cynwyd resident Arthur Scherr visited Har Nebo to visit family grave plots, and spent several minutes looking for the grave markers to point him in the direction of his family members.
When Scherr went to the cemetery’s office to find help, he found it empty: “I don’t know if there’s ever anybody in that office,” he said.
More concerning to Manhoff, however, is that Har Nebo and Mount Carmel have shut out visitors almost entirely in recent weeks, she said.
Manhoff’s godmother attempted to visit Har Nebo, where her husband is buried, last week. When she arrived, the gates were closed, and there was a sign posted saying that visitations could only be made by appointment only or on Sundays.
Cemetery owner Rich Levy recently launched a new website for the cemetery with a portal to make appointments, but neither Manhoff nor Scherr have used it to know whether it’s effective.
According to Manhoff, when she spoke with Levy, he cited COVID as the reason for poor upkeep and limited hours, but when Manhoff or her godmother have visited, the cemetery has been nearly empty.
At other times, Levy has said that the gates are closed due to potential vandalism. Mount Carmel graves were vandalized in February 2017, with 85 to 100 graves being overturned.
For those who have to make a significant emotional and physical effort to visit the cemetery, Levy keeping the gates closed is a disservice to the “thousands of families who have loved ones buried at these cemeteries,” Manhoff said.
“He doesn’t seem to connect the dots and doesn’t understand the impact that he’s having on all of these people,” she said.
Levy did not respond to requests for comment.
Manhoff has been in contact with state Rep. Jared Solomon about the legal implications of keeping the cemeteries’ gates closed to the public.
A 2018 state law by state Rep. Mark Gillen outlines the requirement for “reasonable visitation” opportunities for loved ones.
“If a cemetery is shuttered, for instance, that would be in violation of the law,” Solomon said. “A family … could take action in the Court of Common Pleas to review what ‘reasonable’ means and if the cemetery owner, whether that’s a company or individual, is in violation of the law.”
Solomon did not say whether Har Nebo and Mount Carmel’s policy violated the law, but he did suggest that action is being taken to address the cemeteries’ conditions and hours of operation.
When he’s spoken to Levy, Levy has said the cemeteries have fallen into financial trouble.
In partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Solomon is in the early stages of creating a nonprofit that would give Levy an “off-ramp” of being the cemeteries’ owner and instead create a “community-based alternative,” holding programming that would generate more revenue to the cemeteries.
“This is a model that works,” Solomon said. “It’s the only way for cemeteries like Har Nebo and Mount Carmel to be viable in years to come.”
Solomon said the cemeteries are not generating enough revenue through perpetual care and funerals. Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia generates revenue off of programming like haunted houses and performances that has been successful, he said.
Scherr, a retired certified public accountant who has worked with cemeteries in the past, added that because Har Nebo and Mount Carmel don’t have their own funeral homes, they cannot generate as much revenue as other area cemeteries.
A successful clean-up of Har Nebo in October led by the Jewish Federation and partner Friends of Jewish Cemeteries brought 300 volunteers to the cemetery, Solomon said.
Friends of Jewish Cemeteries’ pilot project to restore graves at Har Nebo created a “dramatic difference,” said Dennis Montagna, program lead of Monument Research and Preservation at the National Park Service, who helped with the pilot project.
The two-week project in November was intended to repair eight to 10 gravestones, but project members were able to repair 32.
“In terms of square footage, it’s kind of a drop in the bucket,” Montagna said. “But it shows what can be done if people are patient with it and really put their minds to it.”
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