The Philadelphia Daily News
July 15, 2011
Thirteen-year-old Tybey Thomas’s final resting place is a sunken hole in the ground. A cinder block is tossed atop his coffin. A small tree is growing out of the gaping hole.
This is far from what Eleanor Thomas arranged for the youngest of her four children. When Tybey died of cancer in November 2010, Thomas went top of the line for his funeral, spending nearly $9,000 – a gold casket with white silk lining, her son clad in a neat brown suit with snakeskin shoes, his coffin filled with Eagles gear.
She made one misstep: She had the boy interred at Kingsessing’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Three months ago, the historic cemetery suddenly shut its gates. There was no explanation given for the neglect and ruin the cemetery’s 85,000 graves had fallen into. There have been no answers for the many people who have purchased plots on the grounds in advance.
So Tybey’s grave remains only partially filled. The headstone his mother already spent $3,000 on has not appeared. Thomas, 42, worries that she’ll never rest beside her son as she’d planned.
“I don’t care about the money,” she said during a recent trip to Tybey’s grave. “I just want my baby out of here.”
Mount Moriah stretches more than 380 acres in Southwest Philadelphia, crossing Cobbs Creek Parkway into Yeadon. After being in business for more than 150 years, it closed without warning in April. The only notification anyone had was a terse message on the office answering machine.
But even before the shutdown, the city was in court with the cemetery’s governing association, demanding it provide upkeep.
“The city does care about it and we’re doing what we can with limited resources and little power,” said Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for city Managing Director Richard Negrin.
One major hurdle? The last known member of the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association, Horatio Jones, died in 2004. Jones’s; widow, Lydia Jones, is named in court papers as his heir.
The city has asked Municipal Judge Bradley Moss to declare the site a public nuisance, to hold Lydia Jones responsible and to issue a fine. Moss’s ruling is pending.
Still, that won’t settle the issue. Long term, Abernathy said, the attorney general can go to Orphans Court and have a receiver named or seat new board members.
Like Thomas, others want to remove their loved ones from Mount Moriah, but they can’t until the cemetery’s ownership is worked out, Abernathy said.
“It’s going to take us more time than we want it to take,” Abernathy said. “In each of those cases, we hope that there’s an operator in the short term that can address the immediate concerns of families and funeral directors as we all craft a long-term solution. Until then, we’re all struggling for answers.”
Further complicating the Mount Moriah situation? It’s a one-of-a-kind case. Abernathy said lawyers have not found a similar case – a cemetery for which there seems to be no responsible party – anywhere in the country.
There are also jurisdiction issues: The cemetery sprawls over two counties and multiple groups, including veterans’ affairs and historic preservation organizations, have interests inside it.
“Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer and no clear path to resolving theses issues,” Abernathy said.
People like Thomas wonder if a crime has been committed. After all, she paid for goods and services that were never delivered.
A spokesman for the state attorney general said the office policy is not to comment on possible investigations but suggested that criminal charges would most likely be a local matter.
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams said the office comments only after charges are filed in a case.
In the meantime, the city is hosting a volunteer cleanup tomorrow starting at 8 a.m. in partnership with Greater Philadelphia Cares, Global Citizen, and Friends of Mount Moriah, a nonprofit organization determined to preserve the cemetery.
It is also asking consumer advocate Lance Haver to handle individual records requests, Abernathy said. The city seized about 10 years worth of property records from the cemetery’s offices.
“The city’s goal is to find a long-term option so we’re not facing the same type of situation in five or 10 years,” Abernathy said. “It’s too important of a site historically, it’s too important to the community and it’s too important to the family members who have loved ones buried there.”
Tybey, a student at Mastery Charter School/Harrity Elementary campus, was an active boy who loved math and playing football. When he began to slow down, his mother was concerned.
She never expected the diagnosis. Lymphoma, the doctors said.
During his eight months of treatment, Tybey and his mother had one rule: They wouldn’t cry in front of each other.
So Thomas sometimes left her son’s bedside to sob in the hospital hallway. “I’m going to get some ice,” she’d always say.
But he knew. Once, when she came back in from “getting ice,” Tybey pulled himself out of his bed and struggled to do a few pushups. A nurse entered and was alarmed to see the boy on the floor.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s for my mommy. I want her to see I’m all right so she don’t have to cry no more.”
The next day he slipped into a coma. He never awoke.
The situation at Mount Moriah angers and agonizes Thomas. She’s brought bags of dirt to try to fill in her son’s grave but there never seems to be enough.
“I never thought I’d lose my son, and then to have to see him like this is so hard. My son is in there in a hole,” she said. “People who were running this, it didn’t matter to them. How can anyone do that to a human being? How?”
She prays, she said, day and night. She cries often. She worries about her son.
“I don’t want him to suffer,” she said. “I don’t want him to have to keep seeing me cry this way.”