Located just across Bushkill Creek for nearly two centuries, the future of Easton’s historic cemetery is uncertain. Staff face financial difficulties resulting from changing burial practices and high maintenance costs.
Located at 401 North Seventh Street, Easton Cemetery was established in 1849 amid the American rural cemetery movement, a trend in the 19th century when developers established cemeteries in rural areas for the purposes of public health and d ‘aesthetic. In addition to its picturesque views and wide array of funerary artwork, the cemetery is distinguished by its history, which reflects that of the Lehigh Valley and the United States as a whole.
Among the 29,000 buried in Easton Cemetery, a visitor may find a signer of the Declaration of Independence and veterans of wars dating back to the American Revolution. With a rich history and the status of one of the few rural cemeteries in the region, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
According to Kay Wolff, a cemetery volunteer, as many people visit the cemetery for its heritage, native plants and landscape as they do to mourn the dead. In addition to those whose families are buried there, she noted that joggers, dog walkers, genealogical researchers, veterans organizations, school groups and people who want to enjoy the outdoors s ‘all stop there.
âWe are so different from what most people think of as a graveyard,â Wolff said.
But despite its deep ties to the Easton community and its historical significance, Easton Cemetery faces financial challenges. According to Cemetery Superintendent Jeff Mutchler, the issues facing the land reflect larger societal changes that have impacted most cemeteries.
As it becomes less and less common for families to stay generation after generation in the same city, he noted that family burial plots are no longer purchased as often as individual graves. Since a portion of the proceeds from the sale of a grave usually goes into an interest-bearing account that financially supports the cemetery, the decrease in the sale of graves puts financial pressure on the cemetery.
In addition, cremation, which costs less than a full burial and service, is becoming more and more popular, contributing to the loss of revenue for the cemetery. These developments, coupled with the need to deal with the fixed costs associated with maintaining the cemetery grounds, create budgetary problems.
” We have [maintained the cemetery] by reducing costs, reducing manpower, maintaining rather than increasing. And we always defer our spending and try to make it so that we can try to stay within a budget. But unfortunately, with all these things lining up …[we] end up running in the red for a long time, âMutchler said.
In the past, the cemetery has received financial assistance from government agencies such as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, but this has not guaranteed their financial security. Mutchler explained that most financial aid comes in the form of matching grants that must be partially repaid. Many grants only apply to specific projects instead of general running costs, so it’s not entirely useful.
Although the community-led donation campaigns have helped raise funds and are appreciated by cemetery staff, they do not generate enough money compared to the overall budget. As a nonprofit, Mutchler noted that all money made by the cemetery is dedicated to upkeep.
“There are times when we [the staff of five to six, depending on the season] are very busy and we have to let things go and catch up later when times are slower. But that’s really all we can afford at the moment, âhe said.
Wolff and Mutchler both see a solution to the graveyard’s financial insecurity in the form of partnering with a bigger, richer institution. They noted that a link with Lafayette College would make sense in light of the shared history of the two institutions.
Easton Cemetery is the final resting place of college founder James Madison Porter, renowned English teacher Francis A. March Sr., Aaron O. Hoff college’s first African-American student, among other presidents, administrators and alumni of CollÃ¨ge Lafayette.
Mutchler envisioned an arrangement in which the cemetery could have access to interest accrued on a sum of money that does not necessarily need to belong to the cemetery. He noted that a trust fund would be ideal.
“[Find] a place like Lafayette, which had a lot of interest, which could somehow include us in a creative way. I don’t know what vehicles they use to support – through alumni or continuation with the school or through a grant; I don’t understand all the ways they could help this way. But find great organizations like this, âMutchler said.
Beyond the possibility of receiving donations from alumni or an official financial link between the cemetery and the college, Wolff called for increased engagement with the Lafayette community. There are plenty of chances for students to volunteer in the form of gardening and offering tours, she said. The cemetery is also a great resource for teachers, added Wolff. For example, the geology department could benefit from the analysis of the different materials of the gravestones in the cemetery.
âI think it would be fun for the Lafayette students to know more about us,â added Wolff.
English teacher Chris Phillips is one of the faculty members who brought students to the cemetery. He described the experience of exploring the cemetery grounds and learning about its history as insightful.
âThis is one of the great lessons of my classes. It is a space in which you can enjoy, relax, learn. You know, it’s not just a place for the dead, âPhillips said.
Recognizing that financial insecurity is the biggest challenge facing the cemetery, Mutchler wants to be known as someone who helped him out of this predicament. To this end, he explained the joy of working towards something bigger than himself.
âThe only thing that attracted me about Easton Cemetery was being a part of this story,â Mutchler said.
âWhen I do things here I don’t think of you know, ‘let’s sort this out because we’ve got something coming up next week.’ I’m fixing it because it’s going to be here, the thought of it going to be here for another hundred years or another two hundred years.