In the Jewish community, Mokom Sholom and its sister cemetery Bayside have been embroiled in controversy for several years–I’m not entirely sure what the noise is about, and it would take serious research to get it straight, but what follows is my rough summary of the situation.
For decades Bayside has been poorly maintained and is now practically virginal forest, choked with weeds, vines and those particularly troublesome large roots that break apart grave markers. Additionally, the cemetery is a consistent target for vandals and in the past several years, has been an ongoing victim of graffiti and grave desecration–mausoleums broken into, caskets smashed, remains scattered–grisly business, right? Complicating the matter is the fact that exposed human remains pose health hazards–certain bacteria, including tetanus, anthrax, cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox–are hardy enough to remain harmful, even after spending a century underground.
Those with loved ones resting in Bayside blame the Congregation Shaare Zedek, who they say owns and operates the cemetery and diverted “perpetual care” funds to renovate a synagogue and other buildings. Litigation is underway, but representatives from Shaare Zedek say that they are only responsible for ten percent of Bayside’s twelve acres, since over the years,they have sold off portions to burial societies that agreed to handle routine upkeep.
Then there’s Mokom Sholom. In about the 1960’s, roughly 11,000 children’s headstones went missing. Cemetery reps say that the graves, originally paid for by United Hebrew Charities, were never there, although arial photos taken over a period of decades show this claim to be false. Mokom Sholom is full, but apparently the rabbis who oversee the cemetery want to dump fresh earth over the now unmarked graves and create new burial plots–a huge theological misstep where Judaism is concerned. These two cemeteries are linked because Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of the Queens vaad harabanim (who is, as far as I can tell, like a Christian bishop over a diocese) expects to inherit Bayside eventually, and he justifies the double-burying in the name of a “good cause”–to pay for Bayside’s repairs.
I had no knowledge of any of this when I climbed the low stone fence on Saturday to check out the sprawling cemetery-cum-forest, teeming with undergrowth and crooked-teeth gravestones, that caught my eye on Thursday’s fateful A-train ride. I envisioned long hours with a sketchpad and a camera, but Friday’s rain left Saturday’s cemetery damp and muddy. So I snapped a few hurried photos, huddled behind tall markers whenever I heard a train go by and later, enlisted my trusty iBook to figure out where I’d been–which is how I discovered the woes of Bayside and Mokom Sholom.