Milton Banks, 92, wanted to spend Mother’s Day this year at Har Nebo Cemetery in the Oxford Circle section of the city to pay his respects to his mother, father, and sisters. Instead, he was met with a locked gate and tall grass spilling out of it. Some of the grass was taller than the tombstones.
Banks repeatedly tried to reach cemetery owner Richard Levy, but met with a recorded message on Har Nebo’s answering machine attributing the closure to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The place is a disgrace, and as far as him saying he’s waiting for the governor to give the green light [to open], I think he’s looking for an excuse,” Banks said, noting that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf never closed cemeteries, and that several other cemeteries where relatives are buried have remained open and well maintained.
In an interview, Levy said that even though the state had not required cemeteries to close, he did so to protect his and his wife’s health since they are at high risk of coronavirus complications.
He said he didn’t maintain the grounds throughout the closure because his landscaping company wasn’t supplying its employees with masks and he didn’t feel safe having them on the grounds. “I really didn’t expect it to go this long,” he said.
Levy’s recorded answering machine message said both Har Nebo and his other cemetery, Mount Carmel, have remained open on a limited basis for funerals, and he estimated there have been about 18 since March.
Joseph Levine & Sons and Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, two Jewish funeral homes in the Philadelphia area, confirmed they had held funerals at the cemeteries since the onset of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Levine said families had complained about the condition of the grounds.
Banks’ daughter, Hope Walls, said she could not imagine funerals taking place given those conditions. “Where would people walk?” she asked. “Why would you invite a family to see that who’s already grieving?”
M.B. Kanis, commander of Drizin-Weiss Jewish War Veterans Post 215, said his father’s grave used to be visible from the street, but is now overgrown with weeds. He said there had been previous care and maintenance problems at Levy’s cemeteries, but called this summer “without a doubt the worst we’ve ever seen.”
He also said this was not the first time Levy has kept visitors off the grounds, noting he and others were unable to access Har Nebo to place flags on the graves of veterans last year.
State Rep. Jared Solomon, who represents the area and has received numerous calls over the last few weeks, said he first became aware of problems at the cemeteries in 2017, when Mount Carmel was vandalized. Of the 500 headstones reported to have been knocked down at the time, he said, about 100 were from the vandalism, while the remaining had crumbled from what he referred to as “the real vandal: negligence.”
“At one of the most difficult moments that any family member has to deal with, which is the loss of a loved one, Levy is entrusted with showing that the lasting memory of those loved ones are honored over the years,” Solomon said. “He has year after year failed to deliver for family members who are currently in mourning, or just want to visit a loved one to feel close or connected.”
With help and pressure from Solomon and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Levy eventually hired a landscaping company to tend to the grounds, work that started last week. Levy said he will reopen once that process finishes, which he hopes will be soon.
For Banks, whom Walls affectionately called a 92-year-old on a mission, that can’t come fast enough.