Standing among the weathered gray stones and freshly cut grass, it can be hard to imagine the decades of stifled tears and carefully placed flowers once present in some of the quieter parts of western Pennsylvania.
The region is home to dozens of cemeteries dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the people buried there are long forgotten, and perhaps these cemeteries would be too if it weren’t for the few people who maintain them.
“It needs to be done,” said Larry Boehm, who has been the main caretaker at Leechburg Cemetery since 2010. “It’s part town pride and part personal pride, but someone has to do it. “
Leechburg Cemetery was founded in 1864, “just in time” to begin receiving those who died during the Civil War, Boehm said. It has a Civil War memorial and is the final resting place of two Confederate soldiers.
Like many other keepers, Boehm is a volunteer. Most of the custodians of these older, smaller cemeteries are locals who dedicate hours of their time to personal or community reasons.
Sharon Hepler sees her volunteer work at Hoffman Cemetery as a way to continue her husband Jack’s legacy.
Jack Hepler was one of the founders of the Hoffman Cemetery Association, formed in 1968 to maintain the cemetery in South Huntington Township. He was president of the association for 25 years before his death in 2020.
“It was his favorite project. He loved this old cemetery,” said Hepler, secretary and treasurer of the association. “We try to maintain it. We are trying to keep everything going. »
Revolutionary War veterans are buried in Hoffman Cemetery. The townspeople in 1794 founded the burial place, as well as the “Old Brick” church which now hosts a service every year.
Almost a decade earlier, Fells Cemetery was established in Fellsburg. The graves include Revolutionary War veterans.
Senior Warden Harry Beck said the cemetery has sparked global interest for its historical significance. A French researcher recently visited the cemetery and nearby historical society, which is in the old Fells church building, to research the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1825 trip to Fellsburg.
Beck, who maintained Fells Cemetery for 40 years, said the cemetery “hasn’t changed much” during his tenure. He once mowed and mowed the grass and laid the graves himself, but now “good guys” have volunteered to help.
“I just want it to continue,” Beck said.
The founders of each of the communities are buried in their namesake cemeteries: Fells are buried in Fells, Hoffmans in Hoffman and Leeches in Leechburg. Some stones have aged well, while others are barely legible.
Leechburg Cemetery has the disadvantage of being set on a steep hill. Boehm said the cemetery was originally located at the intersection of 2nd Street and Siberian Avenue, but was moved in the 1860s with the expansion of Leechburg.
This hill means that the tombstones do not always stay in place.
“We’ve learned over the years that if we can’t find a headstone and we know where it should be, just walk in a straight line and follow the slope,” Boehm said. “We almost always get it back.”
Burials still take place in Hoffman and Fells cemeteries. The last person buried in Leechburg Cemetery died in 1993.
Now Leechburg Cemetery must wait 50 years from that date to be able to apply for a historic grant.
Without donations and volunteers, many of these ancient cemeteries would become overgrown and neglected. The money they receive is often used to buy equipment, pay workers, or repair tombstones.
Years ago, Hoffman Cemetery had extra funds that the association used to upgrade some headstones. The cemetery no longer has that money.
“Cost, you just can’t do it all,” Hepler said.
She expressed concern that as time goes on, fewer people will want to help.
“Nobody wants to overdo it in old cemeteries anymore,” Hepler said. “The younger generation doesn’t seem to care that much.”
Boehm said the lack of volunteers and funds at Leechburg Cemetery is a “century-old problem”.
When he offered to take care of the cemetery 12 years ago, there were 14 other volunteers. Now Boehm is the only one left.
“It’s nothing new that we’re struggling with,” he said. “It’s thankless in a way because the community doesn’t benefit from it.
“It’s hard, but it’s rewarding.”