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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