Working to revive Newark's Woodland Cemetery

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 05, 2016

 

There have been plenty of attempts to bring Newark's Woodland Cemetery back from the dead.

But all of them – for one reason or another – have fizzled.The 1856 burial ground, which holds the graves of Civil War veterans and many others, remains a shambles.

Even though the cemetery is open, it looks abandoned, with tall weeds, toppled-over headstones and trash scattered across its 37 acres on Rose Street.

Karima Jackson, of Newark, believes she has the template that will now work to get the place cleaned up.

Look to your left. Look to your right.  That would be you – neighbor. She needs you to pull this off for the 85,000 people who have been laid to rest at Woodland. "You just can't say you care about Newark and (not) prove it,'' Jackson said.

She has been tapping the community on the shoulder as a member of Organize Change Inc., a grass-roots organization in Newark that is spearheading the latest effort to spruce up the cemetery.

The group is inspired that 500 people signed a petition to support this cause. And it is pumped that residents, city officials and the volunteer cemetery board met last week.

"What we're doing is trying to correct three decades of neglect,'' Jackson said.

The hard part is finding money for the Herculean job. There are nearly 60 dead trees that need to be razed. Headstones have to be righted before the sky-high grass can be whacked and then cut with a lawn mower.

Board president Rosemary Hilbert said the estimated cost for landscaping is $80,000, but the board only has $18,000 to use – money that is the annual interest from a trust fund for maintenance.

If the cemetery were selling graves, she said it would be in better financiashape to make repairs. But the site became inactive in 1980, she said, when it could no longer accommodate more burials. That meant the cemetery wasn't pulling in any income. With no money, maintenance ended, the cemetery deteriorated and attracted undesirable visitors.

"We can't fix it up because we don't have any money,'' Hilbert said. 

Families have been afraid to visit. The body of a man was found partially burned one year. Dogs ran wild. Drug vials are scattered everywhere. People only return during Safe Day, an annual event in May for which the cemetery is cleaned up as much as possible so that genealogist Mary Lish and volunteers can help families find their loved ones. 

Karl Harrell, who has lived across the street from the cemetery for 50 years, remembers when it was gorgeous. He ate berries from the trees, played baseball in an open area. 

"I've seen it go from a graveyard, to a yard and now, it's just a field,'' he said.

Hilbert said the cemetery board has identified a section, with about 300 to 600 empty plots, that can be sold once the cleanup is done. Revenue from the new plots will be used to address other problems, such as uneven ground from graves that have collapsed.

Until that happens, the board is looking for people to be involved, and that's where Jackson and Organize Change come in.  Jackson, an enthusiastic doctoral student at Rutgers,  said the community has more of a stake in the grounds than it realizes. If you are a plot holder, she said, you are part-owner of the cemetery and have a voice in what happens.

She's exploring grants, corporate donations and technical assistance for feasibility studies. Hilbert hopes she's successful, because the board has tried grant proposals that were rejected. Newark Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins has weighed in. She's calling on fencing companies to kick in and philanthropic foundations, too.

"If we don't feel the compassion, it won't get done,'' Chaneyfield Jenkins said.

Jackson has May 7 lined up for a massive cleanup with Jersey Cares, a volunteer group that is organizing a large number of people to do some heavy lifting.

Neighborhood residents are cautiously optimistic. They've had icy relationships with past cemetery boards over the years and didn't get involved.

Vera Jones was about to give up on the cemetery after a bad experience last year. The weeds, she said, were so thick that she couldn't get to her mother's grave.

And then she met Jackson, who told her that things would get better. "It was like God sent an angel right to me,'' she said of Jackson.

After last week's meeting, which was also her mother's birthday, a member of the cemetery board took Jones to the area where Ethel Mae Turner was buried in 1972.

Jones had a birthday balloon that got away. But she also had a second balloon, one that says "I love you'' – she tied it to a fence, so she can find her mother again.

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