Sometimes their cemeteries do, too.
Bob Heilman is “working my butt off out here” trying to prevent 146-year-old Mount Hope Cemetery in South Akron from going the way of Atlantis.
But it’s a struggle, and he’s short on money, and his equipment is old and broken, and often he feels the same way.
When I visited the place last week — at the urging of a reader who had been researching his family tree and was appalled at the conditions he discovered — about 75 percent of Mount Hope’s 8 acres were overgrown with grass and weeds. Some of the weeds were 2 feet high.
Piles of brush, branches and dirt were scattered here and there, additional evidence of an effort that ran out of steam.
A once-stately mausoleum long ago lost its stained-glass windows, and now seven of the glass blocks that replaced them are broken out, compliments of vandals.
A narrow, one-way road through the heart of the place is a disorderly amalgamation of brick, asphalt and vegetation, testimony that asphalt replaced brick as the pavement of choice, then vegetation replaced choice.
The flagpole doesn’t even carry a flag.
By the time you read this — the Good Lord willin’ and the mower don’t break — the grounds could be semi-respectable, something that happens around Memorial Day if it happens at all.
“We operate strictly on donations,” says Heilman, “and over the last few years, donations have dropped off drastically. I can’t hire anybody, my equipment is falling apart and I’ve been out here working for weeks now trying to get it straightened up.
“Two weeks ago, it was waist deep. It just takes time. I usually try to have it cleaned up by Memorial Day.”
The nonprofit operation is drawing only $9,000 in annual donations, significantly below the $12,000 to $15,000 Heilman says is needed to handle basic operations.
With 550 plots remaining, Mount Hope is still active, but just barely.
“Last year, we had six funerals,” he says. “The bad thing was five of them were prepaid back from the ’60s and ’70s. So it’s a case of you go out and dig them by hand and carry on.”
Various groups have vowed to step in and help, he says, but none has followed through.
This is not the way anyone visualizes the final resting place of a loved one. Heilman is among those with multiple family members in the ground at Mount Hope, including his son, brother, sister, grandparents and great aunts and uncles.
In its heyday, this place, which sits just south of Myers Industries alongside South Main Street in the Firestone Park area, must have been beautiful. The land cascades down from east to west, with all of the gravestones facing the setting sun.
The first bodies were buried in 1846, but the cemetery wasn’t formally established until 1866. At the time, the land had not been annexed by Akron and was still part of Coventry Township. Some of the earliest graves were for veterans of the Revolutionary War.
Heilman says he has tried to get the cemetery included in the National Register of Historic Places — “We have actually proven that we’re older than Glendale,” he says, referring to the Akron cemetery that gets all the attention — but apparently that is yet another effort that has fallen short.
Believe it or not, these are not the worst of times for Mount Hope.
At one point, the cemetery covered 18 acres. When South Main Street was cut through the neighborhood in the early 1900s, 10 acres were taken, and about half of Mount Hope’s bodies were dug up and dumped into a mass grave where the flagpole now stands.
No records of those folks exist, and nothing at the site even mentions them collectively.
Best guess for total bodies at Mount Hope: 10,000.
Not only has the sour economy been a factor in the decline in donations, Heilman says, but the majority of people who had been donating “were in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they’re dying off.”
Drafted for job
Bob Heilman never expected to follow in the footsteps of his late father, James, who oversaw the place for more than 30 years. Bob was living in Florida six years ago when he made the mistake of returning to his hometown on vacation.
“Dad got a call for a funeral and he said, ‘What do we do?’?” Bob recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean, what do we do?’
“I came over and made the arrangements and got the funeral handled. I came back and he says, ‘Oh, by the way, the board and I discussed this while you were over there and you’ve been elected volunteer president.’?”
When asked whether he is ever tempted to just throw up his hands and walk away, Heilman responds, “You know what? I made a promise to my dad: I would do it until we could figure this out. I stuck to that word.
“It gets frustrating. I’ll be 61 in a month. I keep getting promises from everybody, but nobody steps up.”
In case the Memorial Day spirit moves you, donations can be mailed to the cemetery office at 1338 Sweitzer Ave., Akron, OH 44301.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.