Reclaiming Mount Moriah

9/18/2015

Fall 2015

Walking with Donna Morelli through Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, it’s hard not to marvel at the constantly changing landscape. Every time I tour the massive, long-neglected graveyard, there’s some fresh revelation as volunteers continue to free forgotten structures from the dense forests and tangled thicket that had once made them all but invisible. I’ve returned today because Morelli, a volunteer with the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMC), sent word that they have finally cleared Mount Moriah’s historic Mason’s Circle, and I’m eager to see it for myself. 

The Fall and Rise

As we walk, I can’t help but reflect on the enormity of the changes that the friends have brought about
on this hallowed ground through their tireless volunteer efforts. When I first visited years ago, this former grande dame of the 19th-century rural cemetery movement was a sprawling 200-acre mess; tombstones, statuary, obelisks – even entire mausoleums – were lost in an ocean of 7-foot-tall, tick-infested weeds. Some areas had been completely swallowed up by forest. Those hoping to find the final resting places of their loved ones often had to fight their way through green walls of poison ivy and vines more reminiscent of a jungle than a graveyard. Thieves dumped stolen vehicles on the property. Packs of feral dogs roved the grounds. Back then, the 160-year-old Mount Moriah, while still hauntingly beautiful, was also undeniably tragic. 

The Founding of the Friends

The last of the actual owners of Mount Moriah Cemetery passed away in 2004, but the grounds had been falling into a worsening state of disrepair long before that. Frustration at the neglect was growing among the community and the families of those who had been buried there. Finally, with legal ownership of the cemetery in limbo, a group of concerned citizens formed the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery to literally take matters into their own hands. Armed only with suburban lawn mowers and weed whackers, a small band of determined volunteers set to work taming the vast 200-acre tract of weeds and forest. Yet while progress has been slow, it also has been sure, and today the friends have cleared nearly 40 percent of the cemetery grounds. Paulette Rhone, board president of FOMMC, is not deterred by the pace of that change. “Good stewardship is not a sprint but a marathon,” she says. Rhone, a kind but determined woman whose husband is buried in Mount Moriah, has seen the benefits of that good stewardship in her fellow volunteers. “People who would otherwise never have crossed paths began working together,” she says. “Our cemetery, as well as our community, will rise.” 

Revealing the Circle

Donna Morelli and I finally arrive at the newly cleared Masons Circle and – yes – you can now see the original pattern of concentric circles surrounding the tall marble column at the center. Barely a year ago, the historic spot was still lost amid a sea of ailanthus trees and other invasive plants, but now the friends have cleared it all away to reveal the long-lost design. I find myself speechless. Morelli laughs with obvious satisfaction at my astonished reaction. Witnessing the awe and delight of visitors when they see the newly restored grounds is the best – and only – compensation she receives for her hard work. “It’s a labor of love,” she affirms with a smile. As Morelli makes clear, it’s not just the landscape of Mount Moriah that has been transformed, but also the lives of the passionate volunteers who are restoring it, as well as the grateful community that has regenerated around it. 

Several truckloads of brush and weeds are removed from the mausoleum area as a result of the student volunteers’ hard work.

Friends to All

That community continues to grow. As a nonsectarian cemetery, Mount Moriah has always provided a final resting place for people of all races and religions, for both rich and poor, and for everyone from famous celebrities to impoverished widows and orphans. The friends have continued in that generous spirit, volunteering to assist any and all visitors to Mount Moriah. When a dying Mississippi man who was confined to a wheelchair wanted to visit his mother’s grave, the friends not only cleared a path so that he could access it, they placed flowers there, and cleared the surrounding area so that he would not think her grave was abandoned to the wilderness. “How can you not go out and volunteer with experiences like that?” asks Ken Smith, the friends treasurer. “It’s so rewarding.”

Filled with Life and History

“Even though Mount Moriah is all about death, it is filled with life and history,” says Subaru owner Sue Facciolli, board secretary of the FOMMC. Facciolli and her husband Fred became involved in 2010 when she struggled to locate the graves of her grandmother and great-grandparents that she had visited in Mount Moriah as a child. The friends helped her find her family’s plot and, inspired, she joined them. Now she is one of Mount Moriah’s most ardent supporters. “The size of the cemetery is staggering,” she notes, “and the wildlife rivals some national parks! Nature is a stunning backdrop for the marvelous artwork etched on the headstones and monuments. No wonder people are drawn to visit … and enjoy its uplifting power and bucolic serenity.”

A Place to Heal the Living

Donna Morelli, like many of the friends, speaks glowingly of the bonds that she has formed with her fellow volunteers. “My best friends are volunteers here,” she says. “The tranquility I have found here as I walk the grounds has been extremely therapeutic for me, but the biggest reason why I do what I do here in Mount Moriah is because it made my mother proud of me before she passed two years back.” The volunteer efforts of friends like Morelli are inspiring more people to join the cause. So many places that are neglected are lost, but through their determination and camaraderie, the friends are winning the battle, and reclaiming Mount Moriah.

A group of Drexel University students join the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery for a day of community service clearing weeds from the graveyard.