The Mount Lebanon Cemetery has become an overgrown mess this year, and the families of loved ones buried there have been trying to clean it up. Lebanon Daily News
Angela and Jim Irwin visit their daughter’s grave once a week. Along with the flowers to lay beside her grave, they carry a lawn mower and a weed whacker.
It’s hard for them to explain the kind of grief they bear for the loss of their 16-year-old daughter, Marcella, let alone the heartache of seeing the deterioration of the once-beautiful cemetery where they laid her to rest four years ago.
The grass has grown so high in Mount Lebanon Cemetery over the last few months that some gravestones are barely visible. A whole tree and parts of other trees have fallen to the ground, some of the old gravestones are broken, and while some of the cemetery has been recently mowed, weeds and grass between grave markers are about 3 feet high.
Families like the Irwins, who have loved ones buried here, have mowed, clipped and cleaned some of the graves, but it’s not enough for the 25,000 graves on the grounds. The board that runs the cemetery’s association just hired a mower recently, but after months of neglect, it isn’t enough.
“There’s a gentleman up there who has been up there every single day,” Angela Irwin said. “He takes care of my daughter’s grave, too, because his wife is buried there, but he takes care of his whole family’s lots. He weed whacks. He’s like 80 years old.”
Families are struggling with why and how this could have happened, and the answer comes down to two things, according to the man who runs the cemetery’s board of managers: revenue and manpower.
$1 million trust
The frustrations in Lebanon over the cemetery are directed primarily on social media at one man: Horace Ehrgood, a local attorney.
“All that nasty stuff on Facebook isn’t true,” he said. “They’re saying that I’m the owner. They’re saying that I have $1.2 million. I wish that were true.”
In fact, Ehrgood has run the cemetery’s board of managers in an unpaid position for about 25 years, he said, and also has five generations of his family buried on the grounds. He has learned of the complaints posted on social media about the cemetery’s conditions and rumors about the money, but said he isn’t about to address them on Facebook.
The 200-acre cemetery, he said, is owned by the lot holders. A portion of the money spent on each lot is put into a perpetual care fund to take care of the cemetery, and a cemetery association board invests that fund and manages the property.
The trust has about $1 million in it now, he said.
State law restricts the use of a cemetery’s perpetual care fund, Ehrgood said. “By law, I can’t take more than 7 percent each year.”
Pennsylvania’s Title 9 statute provides for the care of burial grounds, allowing for the “permanent lot care fund” to be invested and the “qualified trustee … shall pay semiannually the net income of the fund to the cemetery company.”
Under that statute, the Mount Lebanon Cemetery Association is given 7 percent of investment income from the perpetual care fund each year. In 2019, that paid out $70,000.
Adding in another $60,000 from a portion of the lot purchases, the revenue for the cemetery in 2019 was $130,000. Expenditures were $150,000, according to Ehrgood.
The cemetery’s 200 acres aren’t full, so the association also rents out a portion of the land to a local farmer.
“The problem is, our labor over the years has just outrun the thinking back then (when the law was created) and how much goes into this perpetual care fund,” Ehrgood said. “We only really started to run into trouble two years ago.”
What about the grass?
Ruth Benner has several family members buried in the cemetery, as does her husband.
“We went up on Memorial Day, and I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve never seen it like that,” she said.
The Benners live in York now, but they’re Lebanon natives. Her brother, who was killed in the Vietnam War, and their parents are buried in the cemetery. The Benners make their way to the family plots a few times a year to place flowers.
Like other families, they cleared around the plots in May, shocked at what they were seeing. The 160-year-old cemetery, nestled along the city’s border, is expansive, secluded and filled with trees.
The grass was 3 feet high in places, a tree had fallen on top of another tree behind the mausoleum, and other trees had massive branches broken and hanging.
The association employs two part-time workers and a full-time caretaker to mow and weed whack the property from April to October, Ehrgood said, but those jobs have been empty most of this year.
The cemetery lost one of its regular part-timers at the start of the season and had a couple of other issues with other part-time employees. The caretaker/manager, who has a full-time position, has been on sick leave, Ehrgood said.
Angela Irwin said the pay is too low and wondered why inmates from the Lebanon County Prison couldn’t help to clean up the grounds.
“We’ve hired someone to come in and mow,” Ehrgood said. “They’re just about caught up. We have trees that have fallen down though. We need to pick up branches.”
Beyond labor, the association pays for lawn mowers, weed whackers, snow removal, leaf maintenance, and a hoe to dig. He’s hoping volunteers will help to fill groundhog holes and clear branches at the cemetery.
“People just don’t realize the scope of this thing,” Ehrgood said.
About 70 trees need to be cut down in the cemetery, he said, and if they were in the middle of a field, no problem. But because of their proximity to graves, the price to remove them is about $1,000 per tree, he said.
On top of that, the number of burials are decreasing each year, in large part because Fort Indiantown Gap allows for free burial of veterans and their spouses. In the 1990s, the Mount Lebanon Cemetery was doing about 100 burials a year; now it’s about 50, he said.
“Come and stand in my shoes, please,” Ehrgood said. “I’d give up this job in a heartbeat. I’ll be planted out there soon myself.”
Legal issues: Rest in peace? Not with Pennsylvania’s cemetery laws
A painful visit
Angela Irwin can’t fathom what has happened to the thousands of graves in the cemetery.
She looks at those buried near her daughter’s grave, and she sees them as Marcella’s family, like the grave just a few yards away of a boy who died at age 11. To Angela, he’s like a brother to her girl, a part of a family surrounding Marcella when the Irwins can’t be there.
She plans to be a part of the next board meeting for the cemetery’s association. They meet on the first Monday of each month.
Angela said: “We’ve done the hard part of this, buried them, thinking they’re in a good place.”
Kim Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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