Lower Burrell gets parking lot; century-old cemetery gets needed upkeep
A parking lot surrounded by graves might seem odd at a city hall, but in Lower Burrell, it’s benefiting the living and honoring the dead.
The new parking lot — situated between graves next to the current police station along Bethel Street — is part of a $3.1 million renovation of city hall. The city needed the extra parking, and the new lot has about 20 spaces, said Mayor Richard Callender.
Although the parking spaces are very close to some graves, the memories of those buried there will be better honored as the city takes over maintenance of the long-overgrown burial ground.
Among the 100-plus laid to rest there is John Asbaugh, a Lower Burrell farmer who died Aug. 27, 1900, at 76, when he was struck by lightning and killed instantly. “He was bringing in wood when the lightning struck a tree, glanced off and struck him on the back of the head,” according to “The Indiana Messenger.”
Such sacred ground will be better maintained now since Lower Burrell purchased the cemetery in 2018 and will keep the grass cut as part of the sales agreement with Bethel United Methodist Church, also in the city.
The vegetation wasn’t always trimmed at the cemetery, which dates to the 1840s, as trees have grown up around some of the older tombstones in Bethel and at least one other cemetery that abuts it.
The city maintained the Bethel cemetery before. But a disagreement over a previous parking lot 28 years ago that was ripped up changed that.
Part of the prep work for the new parking lot included using ground-penetrating radar to make sure the lot wouldn’t lie on top of any graves.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing anything sacrilegious to any of the area,” Callender said.
Lower Burrell was not taking chances this time.
In 1991, Lower Burrell extended the police parking lot at city hall onto the Bethel cemetery property. At that time, then-Mayor Dennis Kowalski said the property had been abandoned for years and the city had taken over maintenance in the mid-1970s.
The Bethel Methodist church was built at the site in 1843 and was the second Methodist church organized in Westmoreland County, according to Linda Johnson, church secretary for Bethel United Methodist Church at 150 Alder St. in Lower Burrell. Although they share a name, the churches are not related, she said.
The cemetery grew up around the former church, which was decimated by a fire in 1923, Johnson said. The parish disbanded, and the cemetery was given to the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Kowalski said the Conference gave the city permission to do what it wanted with the site as long as it maintained the cemetery and didn’t desecrate the graves.
Unbeknownst to Kowalski, the Conference deeded over the cemetery to the Bethel United Methodist Church on Alder Street. Bethel’s pastor wanted to reactivate the cemetery and start selling the approximately 150 available plots on the almost one-acre site.
At the same time, some family members of people buried at Bethel were upset that the pavement appeared to be too close to the tombstones, with some alleging the city moved some stones, and they were considering legal action.
Lower Burrell officials in April 1992 said the parking lot was mistakenly built over a portion of the cemetery and ripped it out.
Bethel United Methodist Church was maintaining it and selling plots, burying the last person in the cemetery sometime in 2014 or 2015, Johnson said.
The church sold the cemetery to the city for $1 on May 11, 2018.
The new parking lot takes up about one-fifth of the parcel, with graves on either sides of it. The lot is laid on the site of the foundation of the church building that burned down, to minimize any possibility of encroaching on grave sites.
The city’s intent is to respect the graves that are there, Callender said. To that end, city employees will cut the grass and keep vegetation in check but will leave the gravestones as they are. The city will not maintain the headstones, he said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .