Union and West End Cemetery

The Union and West End Cemetery is located in center city Allentown. The main entrance is on 10th Street at 10th and Chew Streets. The cemetery is mantained by a dedicated group of volunteers. Ten board members (also volunteers) serve the cemetery association and manage the finances, make application for grants, solicit donations and participate in the maintenance of the cemetery.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


A Day In The Cemetery

For those of us with some mastery of things mechanical, sitting on the seat of a riding lawn mower and driving it over a level manicured lawn does not seem a particularly daunting task. It is not very challenging to go up and down, back and forth, cutting grass that has not been allowed to grow more than three inches high, ever. Oh, sure, at first, it can be thrilling and even exhilarating for a time, but eventually, it becomes down right boring.

But...put yourself on a riding lawn mower, that is a bit battered and bruised, in a centuries old cemetery with row after row of poorly aligned old tombstones and that can be an altogether and totally different story entirely.

If you have read earlier postings about the Union and West End Cemetery, you are aware that it dates back more than 150 years. Most of the tombstones have been in place well over fifty years and some more than three times that long.

Can you imagine how many times the cemetery grass over these graves has been cut in all those years? Can you appreciate how many times those stones, now in irregular rows, have been bumped, nudged, moved, rocked or knocked off their base? The rows weren't always irregular; the stones didn't always lean at a strange angle, as so many of them do today.

Although many of the stones that were toppled by vandals have now, once again, been placed upright, a series of stones still topple mysteriously, seemingly without rhyme of reason. So, yes we still occasionally experience vandalism, and, of course we still have to patrol the cemetery on "All Hallows Eve" to prevent additional destruction. But it has gotten better, particularly since the lights were installed in the cemetery.

Because of the age of some of the stones, many simply fall over of their own accord. The cement that was keeping the stone atop it's pedestal might have dried out and on the next windy, rainy night...the stone, or several stones, or perhaps a dozen stones come tumbling down. So, in any particular section of the cemetery, as you maneuver down a row of stones, you will likely encounter a downed stone blocking your path.

If you are unfortunate enough to be assigned a section of the cemetery that has not been cut for a two or three week period then you face a different challenge altogether; the challenge is to cut the grass while guessing at where some of the stones lay, or is it lie? Well, at any rate, when you plant the lawn mower deck firmly on top of a downed stone it makes the most unholy noise you will ever hear. You will not soon forget that noise, nor will you want to experience it ever again.

Then there is the problem of heavy rains and sinking graves. Much like pot holes in the street after a heavy downpour, in a cemetery, large, deep holes can appear literally overnight after a heavy rain. Believe me, you do not want to experience the feeling of having your lawn mower go out from under you when you drive into a hole that was not there the last time you cut the grass.

I had a recent experience in a section of the cemetery that had not been cut for several weeks and the grass had grown unusually high. It had rained for several days previous and on the first sunny day I ventured out into the cemetery to cut some grass. I selected the 'Scag' as the piece of equipment that I would use. I love the 'Scag'! It is my favorite piece of equipment. The 'Scag' is an orange monster; a commercial mower that is a zero-turn mower that is very maneuverable, in spite of it's size, weight and heavy duty construction. I emphasize it's weight and size because the rain of the past several days, before my cemetery outing, came down heavy at times; the kind of rain my father used to call a "gully washer". But on this warm summer day, I headed out to a section of cemetery that was quite overgrown and as I maneuvered up and down the narrow isles between the stones, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. Then I made a sharp left turn at the end of a stone intending to cut the grass between two widely spaced stones and when I put the machine in reverse to place myself and the 'Scag' lateral to the row of graves, suddenly the ground beneath me gave way and the left rear wheel of the 'Skag' dropped into a hole next to the tombstone.

I found myself hanging on to a mower that was perched precariously at something like a 45 degree angle. The left wheel was up to the hub in a hole and the only thing preventing us from going deeper into that hole was the Skag's 48 inch mower deck which was positioned flat on solid ground.

Wow! What a sensation! The idea of falling into a grave never appealed to me. I am not particularly spooked by the idea of working in a cemetery, not even after dark, but still, I did not relish the idea of being intimate with someone buried many years before. Although it was a large and a very deep hole, there never was any real danger of my falling in.

Once I gathered my wits about me, I made a feeble attempt to drive the mower out of its predicament, but, of course, that wasn't going to happen, so I begrudgingly walked to my truck on the far side of the cemetery.

My truck, although a relatively small Ford Ranger, is equipped with four-wheel drive and, with the aid of a good chain, it yanked the 'Scag' out of the hole in short order. That's me, the guy with all the white hair and the silly grin on my face.

Once the 'Scag' was clear of the hole and, upon closer inspection, the hole was much deeper than I had at first suspected. Jerry Haas, another volunteer and a director of the cemetery association, thought my situation was pretty funny. That's him, the one laughing and standing in the hole. He claims he was not actually touching bottom.

Laughing at my predicament seems like odd behavior and a strange attitude for the guy that maintains the 'Scag' and all of the cemetery association's other equipment. But the 'Scag' came through it all in fine shape. I was none the worse for wear as well, so we, the 'Scag' and I, continued on our way, cutting acres of grass, well into the early evening, without further incident.

I would like to suggest that this is not a typical outing in the cemetery and was, in fact, a rare occurrence for me and most others that volunteer in the cemetery. Yet, the 'Skag' and I have had some adventures together. The directors of the cemetery do not allow many people to use the 'Scag', mainly because one can very quickly and easily get into trouble because of its maneuverability and power. I have only learned to use the 'Scag' this season and, in the early days, it was somewhat trial and error. There were a few errors that were noteworthy and may be the subject of future postings.

But seriously, for those that might be interested in coming out and assisting us with the upkeep of the cemetery, most of our riding mowers are of the traditional lawn and garden variety and are relatively easy to operate. You will still face some obstacles; irregular rows of stones, downed stones and the like, but it is not that challenging. The cemetery can be a very peaceful, tranquil place. When I leave the cemetery, after cutting an acre or so of grass, I leave with a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of well-being and with the knowledge that I have, in some small way, given something back. That feeling of good-will normally last more than a week, but sadly, the grass will need cutting again within a weeks time. And so it goes, from spring until late fall. I love fall, but I will miss the cemetery and those quite, warm summer evenings when the birds sing and the squirrels scurry about and the leaves rustle in the trees on a soft summer breeze. Be careful!, the Union and West End Cemetery can grow on you.

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