Ken Smith had already draped the iron gates of Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia in purple mourning bunting. On Friday morning, he drove through them onto the snowy, abandoned grounds, heading to a grave he hopes will hold a friend.
He drove past the ruins of the original gatehouse, past century-old evergreens as broad as rowhouses, and the marble statue of Father Time keeping watch above the brush. Past the Civil War graves and over a gentle hill, stopping, finally, at a tilted stone near the roadway, marked “Rhone.”
It is where Paulette Rhone wished to be buried. It was her dying wish: to spend eternity in the forgotten cemetery she fought to reclaim. To rest there, in the valley, beside her husband, Gilbert.
Gilbert, a truck driver and father of four, arrived at the cemetery in 1993, after a heart attack at the age of 47. Paulette, a budget analyst for the U.S. Department of Labor, always felt close to him in the historic cemetery, founded in 1855. She would confide in friends that she could feel his spirit in the beautiful grounds, which even then were falling into disrepair.
By 2011, Mount Moriah had already suffered decades of neglect and mismanagement. What beauty remained poked through a thicket of underbrush and trash, cars, tires, and couches. Whole sections of the graveyard had reforested. Even in the most accessible spots, the grass was waist high, enveloping Gilbert’s grave and so many others.
That year, the cemetery operators interred one last soul, locked the gates, and walked away. When the gates closed, Paulette was one of the first people to bust back through them with a push mower.
A short woman not much over 5 feet, Paulette was sweet but ferocious. And her aura of protection soon expanded from Gilbert’s grave to the whole cemetery. She became president of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery.
“If you disrespected the grounds, or disrespected one of the other volunteers on the grounds, that’s when she stood her ground,” Smith said. She would stand in front of trucks that drove into the cemetery grounds to dump, and, when she caught them, made dumpers pick up every last piece of trash.
After a day of cleaning with the volunteers, Paulette, and the small band of regulars that form the heart of the Friends, would stand atop the highest point in the cemetery, looking down to the valley, and the ever-growing circle of reclaimed land around it. “Wow,” she would whisper.
She developed a green thumb: “She became engrossed in plants and the earth and those things that grow,” recalled her son, Brandon Rhone. She became engrossed, too, in the history of the cemetery, helping others find their loved ones, scouring old records.
“On a headstone, there is the date someone was born and the day passed,” she would say. “And in between, a life.”
And though she lived in the Northeast, she became a defender of the neighborhood around the cemetery, which she felt had been abandoned just as much as Mount Moriah had.
Brian Abernathy, the city managing director, remembers his first meeting with Paulette in 2011. She made a compelling case, he said, for the impact the cemetery had on the neighborhood. The two became friends. Paulette’s passion and dedication, he said, became a reminder “of why we’re doing this.”
He now sits on the board of the preservation organization, run by the city and the Borough of Yeadon, that now has stewardship of the cemetery — and wants to continue to restore it, for the relatives of those buried there, and for the community. As Paulette would have wanted.
Like Gilbert before her, Paulette was struck by a heart attack. Her death on Feb. 11 at 64 hit the Friends of Mount Moriah hard. “Like a torpedo under the waterline,” Smith said.
The group, with help from Abernathy, is petitioning the Orphans’ Court, which for now has final say on the cemetery’s affairs, to allow Paulette to be buried there. She would be the first person laid to rest there since the cemetery closed. For now, she lies in a mausoleum at nearby Fernwood Cemetery.
In the meantime, the Friends of Mount Moriah make their rounds without their leader.
The Friends tend toward the spiritualistic – how could they not, spending so much time in a cemetery? Paulette would sometimes feel her husband near, and sometimes the Friends catch a whiff of an old perfume, or feel a tug on their jacket, or sense movement out of the corner of their eye. And as they wait to bury her according to her wishes, they don’t doubt that their friend has already joined them in the valley.
“She always said that one day she’d be gone,” Smith said. “But she’d always be here, in the cemetery.”