Editor’s note: This story was updated June 21, 2022, to add contact information for interested volunteers.
If Aulenbach’s Cemetery can’t find volunteers to help with maintenance, the cemetery company may be forced to dissolve, said Edward Gensemer, president of Aulenbach’s board of trustees.
“It’s just a few board members volunteering time to go out there when they can,” he said, noting most work full time or are retired senior citizens with physical limitations.
Partly in Reading and partly in Mount Penn, the 21.5-acre nonsectarian, nonprofit cemetery is bounded by Perkiomen Avenue to the south, Howard Boulevard to the north, Cemetery Lane and South 19th Street to the west, and private and public properties — including the Central Berks Police Department’s headquarters — along North 22nd Street to the east.
Gensemer said he reached out to Mount Penn Council President Troy Goodman and the city for help.
Goodman was unavailable for comment.
Should the cemetery company fold, the burial ground might become the responsibility of the city and borough, Frank Denbowski, Mayor Eddie Moran’s chief of staff and interim city manager, said at a recent City Council committee of the whole meeting.
Unlike most cemeteries in the city, Aulenbach’s is not affiliated with a church or other religious institution. Like Charles Evans Cemetery, another nonsectarian cemetery within the city’s bounds, Aulenbach’s was chartered by the state as a nonprofit corporation. However, unlike the former, it is not well endowed.
Aulenbach’s income comes predominantly from the annual contributions made by the city and borough, Gensemer said.
Mount Penn donated $10,000 each of the last two years, he said, noting the cemetery received $5,000 from the city last year but has not received anything this year to date.
City Clerk Linda Kelleher said $15,000 was budgeted for the cemetery by the city for the current fiscal year.
The municipal contributions are supplemented by a small income from a $200,000 trust fund established for perpetual care.
The trust fund is structured so the principal cannot be used, Gensemer said.
The cemetery charges a small fee for the burial services the organization offers as part of its mission. However, the amount does not cover the cost of opening and closing a grave, and burials are subsidized by municipal contributions.
The nonprofit has a small budget for a part-time employee or two at $10 an hour, a few hours a week, Gensemer said, but the board has been unable to find enough help. The cemetery has two employees trimming a total of nine hours a week, he said, but needs at least 20 hours a week of labor just to stay on top of the spring and summer lawn care.
“We’ve reached out on Facebook and by word of mouth,” he said. “We tried everything to get mowers and trimmers. Nobody wants to apply.”
Without the needed help, Gensemer said, grass and weeds have overtaken the burial ground, prompting complaints from area residents.
Denbowski said a Lower Alsace Township crew recently mowed a section along North 22nd Street and Perkiomen Avenue, although the cemetery does not fall within the township bounds.
Grounds maintenance requires more than just mowing the grass in open areas, Gensemer said.
“We need walls redone, and we need roadways redone,” Gensemer said. “We need trees taken down before they fall down and create more damage to the stones than they’re already doing.”
Growth must be carefully trimmed from around the gravestones to avoid damage to the stones, he noted. There also are trees that need to be trimmed and dead and dying trees that should be removed to keep them from falling, he said.
In addition, the cement retaining walls along Perkiomen Avenue and Cemetery Lane are crumbling and in danger of collapse, Denbowski said.
Brush with history
Seeing the cemetery’s overgrown graves and crumbling retaining walls saddens Sandra Stief of Reading.
For decades, she and her husband, Donald, volunteered to mow, trim and otherwise maintain the cemetery. It was always difficult to find help, she said, but for the Stiefs, the work was a labor of love.
More than 20 of her ancestors and relatives are buried there.
And that is not all, said Sandra Stief, whose latest book on Aulenbach’s is soon to be published by Masthof Press, Caernarvon Township. The cemetery, founded in 1853 by Charles Aulenbach, is the final resting place of more than 3,000 Berks Countians. More than 1,200 are military veterans, including more than 500 Civil War veterans, she said.
There is also Johannes Cunius, a carpenter and clock cabinet maker, who fought in the Revolutionary War and the founder’s father, Andreas Aulenbach, a veteran of the War of 1812.
Not all the notables interred there are veterans, Stief said.
There is Lilith M. Wilson, who in 1930 became the first woman from Berks to be elected state representative and the first Socialist Party elected woman to any body in the US
There is also William W. Connelly, a professional baseball player, whose pro career extended from 1945 to 1957. Connelly, who died in 1980, batted left-handed and pitched right-handed.
Also buried there are Ludwig Wollenweber, a German-American journalist and founder of a Philadelphia German-language newspaper; Hans Wilkins, a Reading-born, self-educated naturalist of note; a vaudevillian; a country-western star; a famous accordionist; and countless area notables, not to mention the many ordinary men, women and children, who lived and died in Reading, Stief said.
The cemetery itself is historically important as an example of the garden cemetery movement, she said.
Beginning around 1810, urban communities grew concerned with overcrowding and health hazards.
With little scientific understanding of the spread of disease, it was blamed on inner-city cemeteries. This led to the development of a new type of burial place: the non-sectarian cemetery, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s website.
Located on the fringes of towns or urban areas and not religiously associated, most of the so-called garden, or park, cemeteries were structured as profit-making enterprises or public cemeteries operated by municipalities. But a few, such as Aulenbach’s were chartered as nonprofits.
Aulenbach’s, however, does not qualify as a historic burial ground under state law, Denbowski said.
A 1994 act defines a historic burial place as “a tract of land that has been in existence as a burial ground for more than 100 years wherein there have been no burials for at least 50 years and wherein there will be no future burials, according to the PHMC website.
The act offers limited protection for historic burial grounds.
“The board is totally getting ready to walk away from the whole thing,” Gensemer said. “We don’t have the funds, and we don’t have the manpower.”
Unless the city and Mount Penn step up, he doesn’t see any other way.
Should the city agree to help, Denbowski said, a memorandum of understanding among all parties likely would be required, and council representation on the cemetery board would be advised.
Councilwomen Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz and Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz said they understand the cemetery’s predicament and are not averse to providing some type of relief. However, both are concerned that any help given to the nonprofit will set a precedent for dealing with requests from other nonprofits.
The cemetery board has been open and forthright in providing financial records and any other information requested by the city, Denbowski said.
He is looking into what legal responsibility, if any, the city has regarding the cemetery and also is researching state law regarding what would happen should the cemetery fold.
“The reality is you just don’t leave a cemetery like that — just let go like a blighted property,” Denbowski said. “It’s disrespectful.”
Call the cemetery at 610-779-6060 and leave a message if interested in volunteering. A board member will return messages.