Cleveland lawyer Rubin Guttman (at right) addresses a group of cleanup volunteers gathered last September at Harvard Grove Cemetery.
The dead don’t make the best gardeners as it turns out, which is why Cleveland attorney Rubin Guttman devotes considerable time to pulling weeds, raking leaves, and pruning trees and shrubs at the city’s Jewish cemeteries.
Guttman is chairman of the Commission on Cemetery Preservation, an affiliate of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. Under his leadership, the commission has positioned itself to take over stewardship of four Jewish cemeteries, with more cemeteries likely coming under its care in the future. According to Guttman, old, privately maintained cemeteries can suffer from neglect either because the people charged with their upkeep eventually die or the responsible community organizations, such as synagogues or churches, cease to exist or merge with others.
Guttman, who described himself as a history buff, said he got involved out of a deep sense of obligation to preserve his community’s history. “When people travel throughout the world, one of the things that they often do is tour old cemeteries, because they convey a sense of who we’ve been and also, therefore, who we are,” he said. But of utmost importance to him is “maintaining the dignity of the deceased and the dignity of the survivors.”
One cemetery that fell into disrepair was Fir Street Cemetery, whose first resident arrived in 1865. Various community groups stepped in to spruce it up, including the commission. “It had become an eyesore in the community and we restored the dignity of the cemetery,” said Guttman.
But cemetery maintenance is no walk in the park. Many things exposed to the elements deteriorate over time—even hulking granite monuments—and routine tasks like cutting grass can be difficult. Guttman said protecting against vandalism is also a major concern. The commission sponsors twice-yearly cemetery cleanups that get community members, young and old, involved. It also hosts fundraisers to generate money to pay for restorations. In the works is an Internet database where people can find the gravesites of anyone buried in a Jewish cemetery in Cleveland.
“There’s a huge sense of satisfaction in preserving the history of your community,” said Guttman. “Taking care of the dead is a final kindness of truth. It is an act of grace because the deceased can’t repay you.”
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