The idea germinated from a walk among the funeral plots.
Robert Christopher walked onto the grounds of Easton Cemetery about two months ago with his superintendent, Jeff Mutchler, when Christopher noticed “so many trees here with problems”. Dead trees. Sick trees. Weather damaged trees.
“Of course my wheels started turning,” on ways he could help, said Christopher, the town forester since June 2016.
One way happened on Monday, when workers from seven Lehigh Valley tree service companies hoisted, bucked, shredded and generally felled dozens of old but decidedly bad trees from the historic cemetery, all for free.
Christopher said the city has contact with various tree removal companies, and he emailed 12, asking if they could do a full day of charity work. It got positive responses of seven.
Estimates put the job at between $40,000 and $100,000, according to Christopher and Mutchler. Mutchler said his annual operating expenses are nearly $400,000 for the more than 100-acre cemetery perched on a hill along Easton’s western neighborhood overlooking Highway 22 and Bushkill Creek. He therefore appreciated the willingness of logging companies to cut down some of the approximately 1,000 trees that provide shade and color to the cemetery.
“I can’t thank these guys enough,” Mutchler said. “To see so many guys coming together who are normally competing for the same job, coming together to help us, it’s amazing.”
Leonard G. Witt Jr. of Witt’s Tree Service in Catasauqua brought in a dozen workers, a 65-foot bucket truck, a large wood chipper and related equipment, and his biggest “toy,” a 30-ton crane with cable winch and an arm that can extend up to 175 feet. The crane lowered giant limbs sawed off by a worker to the ground, where workers removed its branches before turning them into wood shavings.
Their work has been slow, partly to protect the tombstones below, some dating from the 1800s.
“It gives you a good feeling,” Witt said, adding that his company has volunteered in Allentown and elsewhere in the Valley. “It’s something that needs to be done, and seeing all the other tree services participating makes me feel better than just showing up for work.”
Since Easton Cemetery, the city’s largest cemetery, announced a merger with neighboring Easton Heights Cemetery in 2019, Mutchler said he’s been able to reduce overhead and expand his services, such as digging graves, to seven other final resting places in the Easton and Wilson areas.
Work has increased during the pandemic, Mutchler said, so the nonprofit cemetery’s savings endowment has remained steady. Still, he said, “we’re not completely operating in the dark yet,” as more people have given up on burials and sought alternatives such as cremation.
Kay Wolff, a cemetery volunteer, said the historic cemetery also serves as a community gathering space, including a place or families to enjoy the outdoors.
“That’s what those vintage cemeteries looked like,” said Wolff, whose husband, Marshall Wolf, serves as chairman of the cemetery’s board, and whose husband’s great-grandfather, George L. Transue , was a superintendent in the 19th century.
Indeed, Mutchler and the cemetery board are trying to bring the cemetery back as a place of respite, with volunteer-led walks, flower gardens, and events like a community day on September 17. People are encouraged to visit on their own or join other planned events or walks, to take in the quiet, beauty, historical sites and more.
Other companies besides Witt’s were Bartlett Tree Service, Emmaus; Service Joshua Tree, Stockertown; Hickory High Tree Service, Hellertown; Craft Landscapes and Expert Tree Care, Easton; Betterscapes Lawn, Shrub and Tree Care, Bethlehem; and Friendly Tree Service, Bangor.
Easton Cemetery, which opened in 1849, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among those buried is George Barclay, a 19th century student at Lafayette College who invented the football helmet. The remains of George Taylor, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, have been moved from a downtown cemetery to Easton Cemetery.
Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at [email protected]