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Brackenridge cemetery struggles to avoid own demise

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Monday, Nov. 8, 2010
 

With 25 burials, it seems like a good year for Prospect Cemetery in Brackenridge.

But the recent spate of activity doesn't change the fact that many of the cemetery plot holders are dead.

This might not come as a surprise, but it's really a problem.

That's because the plot holders are the owners of the cemetery established in 1863 where some 17,000 souls have been laid to rest.

And the remaining proprietors are running out of money to pay someone to mow the grass for what will be an eternity.

Funds have been slim since their investment portfolio took a hit in the stock market tumble.

"It's a tough situation," said Curt Murtland, president of the Prospect Cemetery Association. Murtland's father and great-grandfather also were association presidents. "How can you ask someone to do something for nothing forever?"

The predicament is common for old cemeteries in small towns where the graveyards were nonprofits that didn't squirrel away enough money for long-term maintenance, said Bob Stewart, associate manager of the Pennsylvania Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association.

And local governments and small cemetery owners are struggling with maintenance, he said.

Back in the 1800s when many cemeteries were founded, burials weren't about making money. A decent burial was expected.

Evidence in point: Prospect Cemetery has a "pauper's corner" devoted to indigents and hobos who rode the trains and just showed up in towns.

"There aren't many markers," Murtland said. "We don't bury in that part of the cemetery anymore."

Cindy Homburg, executive director of the Tarentum History and Landmarks Foundation and a board member of the Prospect Cemetery Association, said, "They had people back in the day paying $2 a month for perpetual care. The money is gone, and these people are dead."

And the dead residing at Prospect were among the most prominent residents of Tarentum and nearby towns including Henry Marie Brackenridge, (1786-1871) a lawyer, lawmaker, judge and the cemetery's founder, said Homburg, who wrote "Prospecting," a history of the cemetery.

He named the borough after his father, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816), a lawyer, judge and justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

"Ninety-nine percent of the merchants of Tarentum are buried there, and many of those descendants are living in Tarentum today," said Homburg, who has 200 relatives buried there, including her husband.

Pennsylvania has some of the oldest cemeteries in the country, many predating the Revolutionary War, Stewart said.

Using aerial photographs, the Association estimates that Pennsylvania has close to 3,000 cemeteries, he said.

Do old cemeteries die?

"The tombstones as they age, they crack and weather wears them," Stewart said. "When a lot of these cemeteries started in the 1800s, there weren't any laws. The government didn't regulate them.

"Say a church disappeared. How do you maintain those graves?" he asks.

"It's a problem because it's a long-term obligation. You would cut your neighbor's grass if they needed help. But would you do it for the rest of your life?"

And when cemeteries don't maintain their grounds, it's a nuisance and an eyesore, as evidenced by the more than 100 calls that poured into Prospect Cemetery this spring when the grass cutting budget was reduced by 50 percent.

"Eighty percent of the calls were 'just cut it. We don't care how you do it' with lots of expletives," Murtland said.

But the high grass and a Valley News Dispatch newspaper article turned out Brackenridge Borough Council President Ronald Dunlap and other supporters.

"I ran into a lot of roadblocks," Dunlap said. "They wanted (state) grants. We can get grants, but it has to be for the borough."

Additionally, he doesn't want to use borough resources for private property.

"If we cut the grass there, I wouldn't be able to get off the phone with taxpayers," Dunlap said.

And he's unsure that the borough would have to comply with the Burial Grounds, Municipal Control Act of 1923, which allows state courts to designate local governments as the caretakers of neglected burial grounds.

Dunlap said the borough's solicitor believes that the borough is not obligated to take over the cemetery.

"I feel bad," Dunlap said. "They're in a bad situation. We're in a bad situation.

"We're at a stalemate now," Dunlap said. "Unless there's a way to get money, I can't do anything else."

Dunlap is still looking for money, though. He hasn't given up, suggesting that it might take a combination of volunteer work with a little help from the borough.

"I think there should be some obligation of living people who have family buried in the cemetery," Dunlap said. "They can't expect people in a town the size of Brackenridge, with less than 3,400 people, to take care of their family plots."

For the greater good

But it's worthwhile for the town to keep up the cemetery, he acknowledges, even if the borough is forced to chip in and help.

"If we don't cut the grass, it is going to grow high. It's going to look deplorable," he said.

Meanwhile, Murtland still has 185 to 200 plots left to sell and is considering his grass-cutting budget for next year.

Will he pull back again and slash his $18,000-$20,000 grass-cutting budget, say, in half•

"I can't answer that," he said. "Do you burn through the money quickly, or have it look shabby for a couple months of the year?"

But there are people interested in helping the cemetery, he said.

Last month's annual plot holders meeting attracted four people.

Murtland said nary a plot holder has shown up for the meetings since Murtland has convened them in the last dozen-or-so years.

So much the brunt of the work has fallen on Murtland.

The cemetery's caretaker of four decades retired a few years ago at the age of 85.

Now Murtland, 58, volunteers as caretaker many days to assist in funeral arrangements and to keep things running.

But that, too, can't last forever.

 

 
 


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