Historic Palmer Cemetery could see some changes

Due to lack of re­sources for grounds main­ten­ance, Palmer Cemetery in Fishtown may be forced to add re­stric­tions to the dec­or­a­tion of grave sites in 2013.

Fishtown’s Palmer Cemetery, at the corner of Palmer and Mem­ph­is streets, was re­cog­nized by the Phil­adelphia His­tor­ic­al Com­mi­s­ion as a his­tor­ic city land­mark in late Ju­ly.

It could, however, ad­opt some new rules in the new year due to budget con­straints and the amounts of debris that ac­cu­mu­late on some grave sites.

Since its in­cep­tion in the mid-18th cen­tury, the cemetery has housed the re­mains of in­di­vidu­als who lived throughout River Ward neigh­bor­hoods. It’s es­tim­ated that some 40,000 to 50,000 people are bur­ied there, in­clud­ing sig­ni­fic­ant mil­it­ary and po­lice per­son­nel, and former Star ed­it­or Debbie Szu­mowski.

The cemetery — also known as the Kens­ing­ton Buri­al Ground, as Fishtown was at one time con­sidered Kens­ing­ton — is a not-for-profit cemetery, and runs mostly on vo­lun­teer work and dona­tions, ac­cord­ing to Jim Kings­mill, a cemetery trust­ee.

Cemetery staff, Kings­mill ex­plained, com­prises one paid care­taker, four un­paid trust­ees and sev­er­al in­di­vidu­als who help out on an as-needed basis. The cemetery, which is a bit less than two acres, or­gan­izes com­munity cleanups throughout the year. The next is planned for Oct. 13 at 9 a.m.

Kings­mill said the cleanups have be­come vi­tal to the cemetery’s op­er­a­tion be­cause of mem­bers of the com­munity who may not un­der­stand the rules of the cemetery: he said people will out­fit their loved ones’ graves­ites with fen­cing or ad­di­tion­al stones which make grass cut­ting a hassle, and will leave flowers, teddy bears or oth­er items on graves without re­pla­cing or re­mov­ing them — those items es­sen­tially be­come trash.

“It be­comes some­body else’s prob­lem,” he said.

“Very few people main­tain a grave in the prop­er way,” Kings­mill con­tin­ued. “It’s very, very hard to get the people who have loved ones bur­ied there to un­der­stand there are rules.”

He said that plants like rose­bushes, plush toys, flags, stones and oth­er items that are left un­main­tained on graves­ites con­trib­ute to the four to six tons of debris vo­lun­teers have amassed at cemetery cleanups.

The trust­ees, Kinsgmill said, are con­sid­er­ing ad­opt­ing rules in 2013 which in­dic­ate that fam­il­ies can only dec­or­ate graves­ites twice per year, at the Christ­mas and East­er hol­i­days.

“We’re go­ing to, even for the people who care for their loved one’s grave, take every fence, stone, plant­ing, everything out,” he said. “It will be the biggest fight we’ve ever had.”

To help the cemetery, Kings­mill said com­munity mem­bers must be re­spons­ible for clean­ing up by re­mov­ing dec­or­a­tions after a few weeks, and re­frain from adding fen­cing or stones that crowd the spaces between graves.

The biggest chal­lenge fa­cing the his­tor­ic cemetery, he said, is money. The cemetery did, last year, re­ceive $50,000 from the Penn Treaty Spe­cial Ser­vices Dis­trict.

Fun­ded by Sug­ar­House casino, the dis­trict dis­trib­utes an­nu­al fund­ing to ap­plic­ants with­in the Fishtown, North­ern Liber­ties and Kens­ing­ton areas. That $50,000, Kings­mill said, is about 90 per­cent gone.

“Every time we cut the grass, it’s between $1,200 to $1,500; our grass cut­ting alone is $10,000 to $12,000 per year.”

New fen­cing for the cemetery, he ad­ded, could cost up to $125,000. Each time a storm knocks branches off some of the cemetery’s 70 trees, cleanup ef­forts re­quire time and money. The cost to trim all the trees could be up to $40,000.

Now that the cemetery is of­fi­cially on the books as a his­tor­ic site, Kings­mill said it’s more im­port­ant than ever that the com­munity take care of it. Palmer Cemetery is, he said, ba­sic­ally full — for the most part, there is only room in the cemetery at this point for cremated re­mains.

“It’s a very act­ive place, it’s like a park…it’s very calm­ing when you go down there,” he said. “[It] can’t sur­vive if it doesn’t have money com­ing in, un­less people keep giv­ing back to it.”

Either neigh­bors step up, or there could be an up­roar when the new rules come down the pike in 2013, he said.

“Let’s make this a com­munity ef­fort.”

To donate to the cemetery, a 501c(3) tax-de­duct­ible non­profit, see the web­site at palmercemetery­fishtown.com, or email Jim Kings­mill at Jk­ings­mill@palmercemetery­fishtown.com.

In ad­di­tion to the Oct. 13, cleanup, the cemetery will also host its second-an­nu­al Christ­mas tree light­ing in early Dece­meber. See the web­site for more in­form­a­tion.

Star Man­aging Ed­it­or Mi­kala Jam­is­on can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at mjam­is­on@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at mjamison@bsmphilly.com.

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