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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.