'Part of our heritage': Aging volunteers with strained budgets look for new ways to preserve cemeteries

·6 min read

May 28—Cemeteries will be visited by many this Memorial Day weekend, but maintaining them in perpetuity is a challenge that's becoming more difficult.

Cemetery associations and family members of nearly forgotten cemeteries are looking for new models for operation.

Rising costs of fuel and labor have been straining diminishing earnings of endowments, said Douglas Weimer, board member of the Ankeny Square Cemetery Association in Somerset. The board members also saw that they were the last generation who showed interest in maintaining Somerset Borough's oldest cemetery.

After more than 130 years, the Ankeny Square Association has transferred the stewardship of the cemetery to the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, a nonprofit providing philanthropic services to organizations across the region.

"The cemetery is very much a memorial to the town and a memorial to the many pioneers who are interred there," Weimer said. "There are also veterans from every war, starting with the Revolutionary War, interned there."

The Ankeny Square board was composed of four people, including Weimer — all of whom are descendants of people interred there. Weimer, a retired lawyer, now lives in Washington, D.C.

"The cemetery is an indelible part of our heritage," he said.

The Community Foundation for the Alleghenies has staff to manage the cemetery's endowment, apply for grants and work with lawn-care contractors, said Lladel Lichty, director of Somerset County endowments for the CFA.

"We have two other cemeteries that we are currently working with to possibly transfer over to the CFA," she said. "We were very intentional in how we worked with and set up the Ankeny Square transfer, and we do have a particular model that we will now follow. We see this as a way to support our community if the situation is the right fit for us and for them."

'Change the dynamics'

There's plenty of burial space available at Headrick Union Cemetery's nine acres in East Taylor Township. There are also 83 Civil War veterans buried there, cemetery President Shelby Livingston said.

"So far we've been able to sustain, between selling lots for burials, and interest on our endowment fund and volunteers," she said, "but if we decided we wanted a full-time person on the grounds, that would change the dynamics, and we are getting older."

Livingston has asked many people to consider joining the cemetery association.

"Not too many people are interested," she said. "If we can't find volunteers to take over, I don't know what our options are. It would take investigating what is available."

Seeing a neighboring business crowd out a small cemetery where the founding family of Lower Yoder Township's Estherville section is buried, retired Johnstown police officer Rick Hite found a solution in the Historical Burial Places Preservation Act. The act defines an historical burial place as a tract of land that has existed as a burial ground for more than 100 years and where there have been no burials for at least 50 years.

That applied to the Edwards Memorial Cemetery along Goucher Street, next to Westwood Garden Haven.

"I contacted Lower Yoder supervisors, and the township and their attorney made an amicable agreement with Garden Haven to keep the cemetery open to the public and cut the grass," Hite said.

'Should be preserved'

Hite, 70, said his father and uncle were the last descendants of the Edwards family to maintain the cemetery.

Hite's great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Edwards, settled a part of Yoder Township he named Estherville, after his wife, Esther Ann Strayer. Estherville was established before the township was divided into today's Lower Yoder and Upper Yoder townships.

At the township's May meeting, the Lower Yoder Township supervisors reported on the work to preserve the family's burial place.

"It is such an important cemetery to Lower Yoder Township," supervisors Chairman William Heim said. "It was brought to our attention that we had some responsibility to keep it afloat."

Hite said he's working with the township to place a sign that marks the cemetery's entrance.

"It was part of my family, and I was knowledgeable that they were an important part of providing importance to Lower Yoder," Hite said. "That cemetery should be preserved as best it can, kept as an historical part of the township."

Supported by grants

In the city of Johnstown, a historic cemetery turned public garden continues to grow along the Stonycreek River at Hickory Street.

Veterans of eight wars are interred at the Sandyvale cemetery, established more than 200 years ago, Sandyvale President Diana Kabo said.

Each of Johnstown's three major historical floods damaged the site, sending memorial stones down the river.

Today, the site's 11 acres of flat ground is maintained by the Sandyvale Cemetery Association Inc. doing business as Sandyvale Memorial Gardens & Conservatory. That phrase, "doing business as," is a necessary legal term that enables the association to receive grants, such as one accepted in the past week, Kabo said.

On Thursday, Sandyvale was awarded a $2,500 grant toward the development of a healing garden with wind chimes, sensory plants and a meditation area, all accessible to people with disabilities.

Revenue for Sandyvale's gardens is also generated through hosting festivals and seminars on its grounds and at its greenhouse.

No one has been buried at Sandyvale since 1956, and activities are held at a distance from where graves are located on the sprawling property.

Receiving a court declaration in 1990 as an "abandoned and neglected" was the first step to allowing the cemetery to be transformed into a hub of recreational activity and historical significance, Kabo said.

On Monday, Sandyvale is hosting a Memorial Day ceremony followed by a celebration with food vendors, music, children's activities and a car show.

Kabo said she looks forward to Sandyvale hosting concerts in the summer.

"We want to have more concerts for people to have lawn chairs out and sit by the river at night," she said.

Sandyvale's revenue opportunities are unique for the area's cemeteries.

Ed Myers digs graves in more than 100 cemeteries in Cambria and parts of Somerset County. He is owner of Myers Cemetery Care and is also involved in multiple cemetery committees as an adviser.

Myers said he's seen how cemeteries' perpetual care funds no longer produce the interest earnings that they used to decades ago.

"Money is the biggest problem, even for the biggest cemeteries associated with churches," he said. "And with our aging population, the donations don't come in as they used to."