By Jonathan Sperling
Toppled monuments, sunken gravestones and shattered mausoleum windows are a familiar sight at All Faiths Cemetery, a 166-year-old burial ground in Middle Village.
But contrary to what some local residents believe when they look through the iron fence surrounding All Faiths, the problem isn’t vandalism — it’s a chronic lack of cash.
“When you see monuments down, one thing you might be seeing is that there is no perpetual care. When the cemetery was incorporated on March 2, 1852, there were a lot of poor people,” Daniel C. Austin, All Faiths former president and current chairman, told the Eagle. “They had sections they opened up in the 1800s that they called ‘public sections,’ and people bought these graves for next to nothing. They didn't have the money for perpetual care,” he said.
All Faiths spans Metropolitan Avenue, from Mt. Olivet Crescent on its west side to 69th Street on its east side. The cemetery’s public section is located in its southwest corner, according to Austin, whose grandparents are buried there.
“There’s no money in those areas,” he added.
Many of the deceased individuals in the cemetery were once poor. Plots were sold at low prices so that they were affordable to people with limited means, a mission of the cemetery’s founder, Rev. Dr. Frederick William Geissenhainer.
Geissenhainer took advantage of the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, which permitted non-profit organizations to build cemeteries on rural land; this property would then be considered tax-exempt. Then, known as Lutheran Cemetery, it was eventually developed as a non-denominational burial ground.
Current law adds to the challenge of renovating the cemetery’s sunken and toppled gravestones, Austin said. Funds paid for perpetual care on some grave sites cannot be used to maintain grave sites that haven’t paid. To do otherwise would be committing a misdemeanor, he said.
“It’s not like the U.S. government. I can’t use your money and my money to take care of something that’s not our responsibility,” said Austin. “The cemetery cant use the PC [perpetual care] fund money to straighten out these graves.”
Austin also noted that families who could afford perpetual care decades ago might not have been able to keep up with the rising costs of labor maintenance or neglected to respond to deficit letters sent by the cemetery.
“When a grave is in deficit, all we can do is cut the grass,” Austin said.
Despite its renovation needs, the cemetery’s future isn’t all gloomy: a student program at Christ the King Regional High School, located across the street from All Faiths, occasionally helps maintain the cemetery, and District 30 Councilmember Robert Holden has also spoken in support of the cemetery’s upkeep.
“Cemeteries are historic sites that are important to the character of any neighborhood, and I would be happy to see any efforts made to preserve the rich history of All Faiths,” Holden told the Eagle.
The Eagle confirmed with an NYPD spokeswoman that as of press time, no reports of criminal mischief were reported at All Faiths during December 2018.
All Faiths is not the only Queens cemetery to struggle with disrepair. The Eagle reported earlier this year on the state of the Bayside Jewish Cemetery, located in Ozone Park. That cemetery has rotted and crumbled due to a decades-long mix of neglect, theft and vandalism.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told the Eagle that the cemetery’s decline, “should be a concern to all people because it’s about respect for the dead. We talk about respect for the living but respect for the dead is equally important and we need to correct it.”
This story is part of an ongoing series of articles pertaining to All Faiths Cemetery and other Queens cemeteries.