Families Upset By Cemetery Conditions

Photos taken June 29 show the state of the grounds at Har Nebo Cemetery. | Photo by M.B. Kanis

When Joyce Sherman of Bensalem went to pay her respects to her parents at Har Nebo Cemetery the day before Memorial Day, she found the gates closed and a cemetery in deep disrepair — problems the cemetery owner attributes to the pandemic.

“From what we saw, the place is deplorable. The grass is high, and it doesn’t seem to be taken care of,” Sherman said.

Sherman, 98, who was a nurse in World War II stationed at various points in Cairo, Ghana and Senegal, and her son, Jonathan, the past commander of Fegelson Young Feinberg Jewish War Veterans Post 697 in Bucks County, went looking for answers. They didn’t get beyond a recorded message that said the cemetery would reopen when the area’s coronavirus restrictions went green.

“They ought to have some sort of better explanation,” Jonathan Sherman said, noting that the grass was knee-high in places during a 2019 visit. “They said it was a contractor problem.”

Cemetery owner Richard Levy said the coronavirus has thrown him for a loop. Aside from some funerals, he essentially closed the cemetery, which is located in the city’s Oxford Circle neighborhood, to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to also protect himself.

“I try to get back to everyone, but I’m just inundated,” he said. “It’ll take a while to catch up and a while to get the grass cut.”

As for disrepair, some of that goes with being an older cemetery, Levy said.

“There are always going to be some stones that are crooked,” he said, noting that when he receives complaints, the stones are straightened. “We get it done — sometimes not as fast as they would like.”

The Shermans weren’t the only ones to report problems.

M.B. Kanis, the commander of Drizin-Weiss Jewish War Veteran Post 215, went to the cemetery, where his father is buried, on June 19 and “was astounded” at what he saw.

“It was shabby. It was not a place you want to visit. … It looks like an abandoned cemetery,” he said.

Kanis said trash was strewn outside the cemetery fencing, grass and weeds grew as high as 30 inches tall and numerous headstones were leaning or even toppled.

He said there were 2,000 to 4,000 veterans from Drizin-Weiss alone buried in the cemetery.
“Vets deserve better than that,” he said.

The original cemetery on Spruce Street dates to 1740, but moved to what was then farmland near Philadelphia in 1887, according to Harry Boonin, a local author and historian.

Orthodox Jews living in South Philadelphia frequently buried their dead there and some prominent people are interred there as well. Those include atomic spy Harry Gold, who testified against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; longtime Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen; Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter and columnist Stan Hochman; Eddie Gottlieb, who owned and coached the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors and was instrumental in the league’s early days; and Medal of Honor recipient Samuel Gross.

At times, the cemetery has been a magnet for bored teens.

“I know kids used to bring beer in there 20 to 30 years ago,” Boonin said.

Levy, who also owns Mount Carmel Cemetery — which was vandalized in 2017 — acknowledged that trespassers have been a problem, which is why the cemetery was fenced years ago.

Levy’s records show there are 33,693 people buried in the cemetery’s 16 acres, but some room remains for future funerals, as well as cremations, which are increasingly common.

He noted the economics get more difficult at older cemeteries where there are fewer burials and less money coming in.

“The real problem is inflationary trends,” he said.

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  1. This is an unfortunate situation. The cemetery where my parents are buried, Har Zion in Collingdale, PA, doesn’t have an office on the premises and it is also in deplorable condition. There is a trailer on the property but no one works there. It is sad to me that our parents purchased these plots, after spending a lot of money, and their burial places are neglected.

  2. I would like Har Nebo updated to it’s nice previous condition. I have 6 family members buried there including my son. This makes me very sad.

    • I have many relatives there, including my g-g-grandfather, who is about to have his 100th Yartzheit. I wanted to help raise funds in his honor to help restore the cemetery but can’t get a hold of anyone at the office. I also don’t know if the funds would go to where they are supposed to,

  3. It’s funny that Shalom and Roosevelt Cemeteries are being kept up. Using this pandemic as an excuse is pure BS.

  4. For anyone that pays for perpetual care, this is breech of contract.
    Contact the attorney generals office and file a complaint.
    The more complaints, the better.

  5. Let us give the Pandemic the excuse for neglecting this cemetery at this time. Things re pretty bad now. When things are better, let us see if Richard Levy will keep his promise by doing right by this cemetery and taking care of the grounds and everything else that is needed to respect our Dear Departed Loved Ones.!!

    My parents and other family members are buried there. Everyone deserves the right to try to make things better, especially at this Difficult Time in All Our Lives Right Now. I hope we can depend on you Richard Levy!!!

  6. This cemetery was in horrific condition way before the Pandemic. COVID is just an excuse for years of neglect and vandalism. I have family members buried there. One stone has either fallen or been pushed over and it would very expensive to have it repaired. No family members want to contribute to the repair. I cannot imagine that anybody would want their loved one buried in this overgrown depressing neglected place. Had Nebo should be sold.

  7. There is no order by the Governor to close cemeteries, as was on the voicemail. The owner doesn’t have to let people into the office if concerned about the virus. And there is rarely anybody on the grounds.

    Chapter 7 REASONABLE ACCESS TO BURIAL GROUNDS of Title 9 of the Consolidated Statutes of PA, (https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/LI/consCheck.cfm?txtType=HTM&ttl=09&div=0&chpt=7)
    says… the owner shall grant an individual reasonable ingress and egress to a burial plot in a cemetery for the purpose of visiting the burial plot.

    Locking the gates for over 3 months is not reasonable access. The law also says… an individual denied reasonable access may petition the court of common pleas having jurisdiction where the cemetery or burial plot is located for relief.

  8. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia acknowledges on behalf of our colleagues the importance of maintaining the final resting place of past generations of our Jewish community. We call on all local cemeteries to provide the upkeep to allow for meaningful family visits, and to honor those who came before, allowing us as rabbinic colleagues to provide comfort through services at our community burial grounds. We recommend that colleagues and the families they seek to comfort be well-informed about the maintenance at individual cemeteries before investing in a final resting place for loved ones. In this manner, individuals can more fully uphold the mitzvot of k’vod ha-met (honoring a deceased loved one with respectful burial) and nichum aveilim (bringing comfort to the bereaved through the rituals involved with such burial).

  9. I think it is deplorable and disrespectful for Har-Nebo to steal our perpetual care money and blame it on Covid-19. They are illegally closing the Cemetery so family members can’t see the horrible conditions. Other Cemeteries are being kept open and maintaining their burial grounds, I hope the proper and legal authorities step in and correct this injustice to our loved ones.

  10. Richard Levy has no excuse for not keeping the cemetery in order. We have paid for perpetual care for 10 family members and this cemetery is in deplorable condition! It is illegal to close a cemetery and not allow family members to visit their loved ones! We still have four plots that have been purchased but Levy is causing us to have second thoughts about using them! Levy, you are a disgrace! You truly do not care about the people who rest here and their families!

  11. My husband and many of his relatives going back more than 200 years are buried at Har Nebo. All have perpetual care. Our family still has several plots paid for and ready for the next burial.
    But the question is “WHY??”
    WHY has Levy neglected his responsibilities for so long?
    WHY has the money paid for perpetual care been subsumed by the cemetery?
    WHY have we not reimbursed for undelivered perpetual care?
    WHY have we been kept in the dark about the conditions there?
    WHY do we not know if Har Nebo has or will file for bankruptcy or be sold outright?
    It is a disgraceful breach of confidence as well as contract. Shame on Richard Levy and his cohort.
    From DIANE PERRY. [email protected]

  12. Unfortunately, it’s been increasingly difficult for many cemeteries to remain viable economically. Many have not kept up with trends such as cremations (by building or renting infrastructure to support that) for those constituents who desire that option. Cremations are also a much less costly option versus a traditional burial so the revenues per sale are much less. For cemeteries who are also closer to the end of their own useful life (i.e. not many plots left), that can reduce sales too (as well as other social trends such as their primary constituent families moving out of the area). Lastly, we have been living in an era of low and often negative real interest rates and unless you’re a brilliant financier like Stephen Schwarzman, Art Samberg (R.I.P.), Bruce Berkowitz or David Abrams (and I’ve done work for 2 of those 4), you aren’t going to obtain much of any return from the so-called perpetual trust funds; and, yes, some unscrupulous operators raid those funds too when they are desperate. This is not the first cemetery to have profound problems and it appears that it’s long overdue for a new owner. Mr. Levy has had plenty of time and opportunity to be an effective steward of this vital asset for the families with loved ones there and his time is over. But shaming him — even if well-deserved — isn’t going to get any of you the meaningful result you want; look, Levy isn’t going to one day re-open the gates and showcase his newfound, cheap and brilliant Oompa Loompa labor and dazzle you with all the improvements they’ve made (thank you Gene Wilder!!). The same goes for Har Jehuda and some other failing cemeteries in the area, though I would not lump all the operators in with Levy (other operators are really trying but are simply standing with their finger in the dyke). And the one-time volunteer efforts on upkeep are common enough but also sad to read about as they come from a place of well-meaning but are mere band-aids and not sustainable solutions for profound problems that aren’t going away. I’ve been looking at some other cemeteries in the area and would consider taking this over from Mr. Levy — but I’m also certain that it would need to be recapitalized and recommend setting up the successor as a not-for-profit 501(c)(13) I’m already working on such a plan for a municipally owned cemetery outside the area, too. If anyone has Mr Levy’s contact information you can pass mine along to him. Or if any of you wish to speak with me further about practical solutions you can email me as well. Kind regards, James Hartmann [email protected]


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