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Retaliatory shootings at an Upper Darby cemetery have neighbors on edge and police frustrated

There have been two shootings in two months at the Friends Southwestern Burial Ground, police say.

Friends Southwestern Burial Ground 
in Upper Darby.
Friends Southwestern Burial Ground in Upper Darby.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Richard Blye left Philadelphia to save his son. He saw the gun violence surging on the streets he was raised on, and moved his family to the other side of the city’s western border with Upper Darby.

That was 20 years ago. Now, Blye is fuming, wondering if he’ll have to move again after two brazen, daylight shootings in an unlikely place: the Quaker cemetery up the block.

The gunfire came exactly two months apart, Jan. 4 and March 4, during midday funerals at the Friends Southwestern Burial Ground. Investigators in the Delaware County township say both were the result of ongoing gang feuds in Philadelphia, the same conflicts that claimed the lives of the people being buried.

“We respect your right to mourn, we respect your right to grieve. We respect your right to express yourself and your loved one,” Blye said in a recent interview. “We know how important that person was in your life, but we want to live.

“Don’t bring the beef to us — remember we got kids, too.”

In a community meeting earlier this month, held over Zoom, dozens of residents voiced concern over the burial ground, a long-standing fixture in Upper Darby that touts an impressive historical pedigree: It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and noted abolitionists Mary Hewes Biddle and Edward Garrett are interred there.

Leaders at the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, the Quaker congregation that operates the burial ground, have pledged to improve communication, especially with the township’s police department, on days when large crowds are expected at the cemetery.

But Blye and his neighbors say the shootings have capped at least three years’ worth of issues at the burial ground. The cemetery has seen a spike in the number of burials in that time, and the large crowds they attract have created persistent problems with litter and traffic, he said.

The recent number of burials is striking, considering the history of the property. Since opening in 1860, the cemetery has interred 5,300 people, according to Dana Reinhold, the clerk of the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. In the last seven years alone, the staff has buried 1,300, nearly a quarter of the total.

Reinhold said the recent increase in funerals has come as “green burials” have become more popular, especially for Muslims. She said multiple funeral homes in Philadelphia have contacted the burial ground specifically for those ceremonies, in which an un-embalmed body is laid into the earth without a casket. It is one of only a handful of cemeteries in the region that allows such ceremonies.

The recent shootings, as well as the overall concerns of the neighbors, trouble the monthly meeting, Reinhold said. They are willing to work with police however they can, she said, and are developing a system to better collaborate with them.

“A core Quaker value is helping build relationships and solving disputes without violence, so that’s something we’re interested in all the time,” Reinhold said. “Obviously, we have to be even more committed to it when things like this happen. My heart goes out to the victims, the people who suffered injury at the shooting, and the families who were trying to bury their loved ones.”

Two people suffered nonfatal injuries in the March shooting, which police say was sparked by an argument between two of the ceremony’s attendees. No one was injured in the shooting in January, but bullets struck St. Demetrios, a Greek Orthodox church across the street.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said the shootings likely were attacks of opportunity: In the March incident, Philadelphia police knew there were simmering gang tensions surrounding the service and kept a close watch around the funeral home.

Across the county line, however, the cemetery was wide open. And Bernhardt’s officers, he said, were unaware the funeral was happening until about an hour beforehand.

The shootings are frustrating for Bernhardt. He sees them as a byproduct of the soaring gun violence in Philadelphia.

“It’s transient, and it’s coming into the area for the burial,” he said. “The burials going on there are not for people from Upper Darby. Respecting everyone’s religious beliefs and having a burial there, there’s nothing we can do to control it, except to partner with the funeral home and burial ground to have the right resources there.”

Going forward, Bernhardt and his department are planning to have two officers stationed around the cemetery during larger funerals, to help direct traffic and also address other issues that may turn up.

“If we set that tone that there’s always a police presence there, that’s going to deter people from showing up and having a gunfight,” he said. “And that has always been our main concern, keeping people safe.”

Father Gregory Gilbert, the pastor of St. Demetrios, agrees that the police detail is necessary, especially after he had to pull two bullets out of a — thankfully empty — room in January.

And as a faith leader himself, Gilbert understands that this is a situation that requires collaboration.

“We want them to have their funerals safely,” he said. “We know they’re not all gang funerals, but we know some of them are, and some of them are causing these problems. We’re not trying to turn it into something seen as us against them, but we can’t keep allowing the neighborhood to be in danger.”