CHARLEROI (KDKA) — Across the region, it’s a sad sight to see — old and abandoned cemeteries going to seed.
A few years ago, the Charleroi Cemetery had ankle-high grass and pathways strewn with garbage.
“The grass was up over the tombstones, and it was just terrible,” Stacy Wolfe said.
Today, things are different in Charleroi. The grass is being mowed and the memorials are being attended to, but only because the families of loved ones buried there have taken the maintenance upon themselves.
Wolfe’s father is buried in the cemetery, and there are plots for her mom, herself and her siblings, alongside townsfolk and veterans going all the way back to the Civil War.
“These people built our communities, and we should be there for them even in the afterlife. So, it’s a respect thing for me,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe organized a group of families after the arrest of Joseph Minkovich, who was charged with two felony theft counts for draining the cemetery’s perpetual care fund. That was the fund for the upkeep of the grass and graves.
Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone agreed to drop the charges after Minkovich agreed to make restitution.
“In this case, we were able to get a large part of that money back. We had, what I believe, is a good resolution here, but in a lot of cases, that’s not necessarily so,” Vittone said.
Perpetual care funds are required by law and kept on file with the county orphan’s court, but they’re not subject to audit or review, nor are the operations of cemeteries themselves, which come under the state real estate commission.
“There’s nobody to inspect them. The cemeteries in Pennsylvania are basically unregulated,” funeral director Jim Stover said.
Across the state, cemetery perpetual care funds have been drained and owners have walked away. State law says the maintenance of the cemeteries then falls to the host municipality, but many cash-strapped communities, like Charleroi, have other priorities, leaving it folks like Wolfe to take care of their own.
“I just want it to be taken care of, like, forever,” Wolfe said.
With the replenished care fund, Wolfe created a nonprofit and has hired a maintenance worker to cut the grass and do basic maintenance, but now those funds are drying up.
While she’s now looking for donations and grants, what she really wants is a larger solution.
“I’m going to take it to the state to see if they’ll help, but eventually something’s going to have to be put in place,” Wolfe said.
Without the families of loved ones stepping up, cemeteries like Charleroi would fall to seed, but they can’t maintain them forever. That’s why they’re asking state and local government to step up.