"People who have loved ones buried there are in a horrible situation," said Lance Haver, director of the city's Office of Consumer Affairs. "They paid for perpetual care and were defrauded."
Mount Moriah, incorporated in 1855 and straddling the line between the city and Yeadon, is among scores of cemeteries across the region showing signs of monumental neglect.
Shattered and tilting gravestones, tangled vines, and untrimmed vegetation also are seen at Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia; Evergreen Cemetery, New Camden Cemetery, and Johnson Cemetery Park in Camden; Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside; and Jordantown Cemetery in Pennsauken.
At Johnson Cemetery, the headstones lie flat, like stepping-stones, leaving few clues that the grounds hold scores of black Union troops who fought in the Civil War.
At Evergreen Cemetery, an empty building near an entrance on Mount Ephraim Avenue is covered with graffiti, and trash sits in front of its open chain-link gate. Nearby, narrow lanes are partly blocked by branches and some graves are choked with vines and bushes.
Why the neglect? Their operators cannot pay for the upkeep of older graves and don't have enough money from new burials to take care of their sprawling necropolises. Many people also are choosing to have remains cremated. It's cheaper.
Some 19th-century cemeteries opened before perpetual care was established, said Bob Fels, external chief operating officer and general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, representing 7,500 cemeteries, funeral homes, and crematories.
Today, all states require that a portion of the sale price of burial space - 10 to 15 percent - be placed in an irrevocable trust for the care of the grounds. "Cemeteries are still the only businesses that have to service what they sell forever," Fels said.
Upkeep funds weren't as necessary in the 19th century and part of the 20th as people usually lived and died in the same community and tended their ancestors' graves.
"A lot of current living family members may not know their relatives are buried" at Mount Moriah, said Mark Anderson, treasurer and a board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, which conducts periodic cleanups. "We have become a more mobile society.
"People move away," he said. "Generations pass and there's no connection with ancestors."
The friends are scheduled to perform a cleanup from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday as part of Park Day, an annual nationwide event sponsored by the Civil War Trust, the History Channel, and National Park Service. This year, it commemorates the Civil War's sesquicentennial.
"People used to visit cemeteries in the past," Anderson said. "They were the precursors to parks.
"They'd get out of the city and go to [Philadelphia's] Laurel Hill Cemetery, spend a day in the country," he said. "They don't do that anymore - at least not in the same volume."
Mount Moriah holds the remains of James Thompson, a Union soldier who once rushed out under heavy fire to rescue a badly wounded comrade during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Also there is Union Capt. Sylvester Martin, who received the Medal of Honor for making a "most dangerous reconnaissance" at Weldon Railroad, Va., in 1864; Union Lt. Jacob Douty, who lit the fuse resulting in the massive mine explosion under the Confederate line at Petersburg, Va., in 1864, and Mary A. Brady, a tireless nurse who treated wounded troops during the Civil War.
They were joined by at least 18 Medal of Honor recipients, two Philadelphia mayors, and many other famous figures, including a magician; Phillies owner Israel W. Durham, who died in 1909; and celebrated 19th-century Shakespearean tragic actor John Edward McCullough.
"I think it's a shame," said Anthony Waskie, a Temple University professor and Civil War and Philadelphia historian who helped found Friends of Mount Moriah. "It may be the economy and indifference."
The cemetery "could be beautiful," said Waskie, who is also a member of the board of the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, which has helped to successfully restore the site. "It's a matter of will and how much effort and investment people are willing to make."
Efforts to help Mount Moriah are moving slowly. Two representatives from the city and two from Yeadon will be chosen and they'll choose three more representatives from the surrounding community to form a nonprofit board that will take over the cemetery after the court officially removes it from the defunct Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, which operated it.
While burial grounds show neglect, they attract vandals, who knock over stones and cover mausoleums with graffiti, and become the scenes of illegal dumping, theft, armed robbery, prostitution, and even murder.
Mount Moriah "is not the only cemetery that's fallen into this condition," Haver said. "Are we saying that only the cemeteries with connections to wealthy people will be maintained?"
At New Camden Cemetery, which is cared for by the city, scores of metal rods that supported plastic flag holders were stolen in June, leaving the ground littered with flags.
And at Johnson Cemetery Park, once dubbed "needle park" for the drug activity there, many headstones were removed and others were laid flat as Camden turned it into a public park with benches.
Johnson Cemetery, in the 3800 block of Federal Street, this year became the subject of a documentary, The Lonely Bones, by Kevin Walker, a Burlington County public defender with a master's degree in history from Rutgers-Camden whose film was accepted for screening this month by the Garden State Film Festival and the New Hope Film Festival this summer.
"When it was converted to a park [in the 1980s], you lost the sense of the cemetery," Walker said. "The city had good intentions but not a lot of money.
"I would characterize the effort as misguided," he said. "There's nothing there that signifies that this is hallowed ground. There's a green sign with graffiti on it that says Johnson Cemetery Park."
Contact Edward Colimore
at 856-779-3833 or email@example.com.