Michael Simpson described an hour spent at Mount Moriah Cemetery as an "Easter egg hunt" and a "wild goose chase."
The Southwest Philadelphia cemetery has been in disarray for decades, with mounds of overgrown Earth, natural sink holes and weeds covering sections of the historic cemetery. About 85,000 people are buried there, most notably Betsy Ross and thousands of veterans. The oldest plots date back to the 1850s. A group of volunteers from the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery has been working in recent years to improve the cemetery’s conditions, after years of neglect.
“It’s a jungle out there,” said Simpson.
Simpson was looking for his mother’s grave site and the nearby resting place that had long been reserved for his Great Aunt Dot, 94. He envisioned an upright rose-colored headstone in section K. After an hour of searching and with the aid of a volunteer, the stone could not be found.
Simpson gave up.
Then as he began walking away with a look of disappointment on his face, Simpson stopped at the last row before the curb. He looked down and said, “Bingo!” Simpson had found the headstone. It was gray and flat, a far cry from what he had remembered.
Locating his mother’s headstone brought a measure of peace. But, it didn’t change the family's unfortunate predicament following Aunt Dot's death just a week prior. Simpson couldn’t bury her at the cemetery which she'd paid for and designated as her final resting place.
"This whole thing is mind-blowing. It’s just bizarre, right out of the Twilight zone," said Simpson.
No one has been buried at the historic cemetery since it closed in 2011. The problems were two-fold. The cemetery had been neglected for so long that conditions were deplorable. And legally, there was no one responsible for ownership or upkeep. Mt. Moriah had been operated by the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, but the last living member, Horatio Jones Jr., passed away in 2004. To complicate matters, the cemetery straddles the City of Philadelphia and the Borough of Yeadon. Now, the two towns have formed a new organization called the Mount Moriah Cemetery Preservation Corporation reorganizing and ultimately, taking over ownership and management of the cemetery. But until legal ownership is established, families with plots are unable to use them.
Five church friends showed up when Michael and Christine Simpson held Aunt Dot’s viewing at the Burns Funeral home. They empathized about the unfortunate position the Simpsons found themselves in when they couldn't fulfill Aunt Dot's wishes.
“You’d think with a deed and plot one’s final resting place was secure,” said friend George Herrmann.
Sitting in a semi-circle at the viewing, the friends reminisced about Aunt Dot and the long life she lived.
“It’s depressing they can do this,” said Barbara Hannon. “I can’t imagine how this could possibly happen.”
When it was time to say goodbye to Aunt Dot, Simpson and his wife Christine covered her with her favorite bed spread, a yellow scarf she always wore and a stuffed bunny.
“I want to make things right, the way she willed it. Not being able to fulfill her wishes – that’s bothersome,” Simpson said.
There may be other families with plots who won't know until the death of a loved one that they face the same predicament.
Kathy Felip of Western New York State had to make alternate plans when her aunt died recently at a Wallingford nursing home. According to Felip, the funeral was pre-arranged and paid for in 2009. She will now be buried at Alfred Rural Cemetery in New York. The family must bear the additional cost of $400.
Carol Jackson of Philadelphia is afraid to go out to the cemetery. She has two plots near her dad's, which she hasn't seen in at least three years.
"I'm very disappointed. I thought it would be rectified," said Jackson. "I wish I hadn't bought the plots."
Jackson plans to use the land as the final resting place for other family members when cemetery operations resume. Due to all the confusion, she doesn't want to be buried there now.
“The joint board will figure out the next steps because the city has no cemetery resources or expertise. Mayor Nutter has made it clear we have to figure out a long-term solution so something like this doesn’t happen again,” said Abernathy. "The situation is now too big to ignore. Our goal is to turn Mount Moriah around."
Simpson was praying for a miracle after Great Aunt Dot died. He waited a week before making the tough decision to cremate her remains. He hopes one day to bury her remains at Mount Moriah. For the time being, she’ll rest in an urn next to another deceased relative at his home.