Crypt Keepers of Oakwood Cemetery By: Ashley MItchell

What is community? Do you think of a cemetery being a community? Paul Harvey does. As a former educator, Harvey has always engaged with young people and the broader community in his hometown of Syracuse, New York.

Since retiring, he also engages with the deceased— building community around stewardship of Syracuse's Oakwood Cemetery. He is Vice President of the Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association (HOCPA) and a founding member of a group known as Crypt Keepers.

Crypt Keepers, also known as Friends of Oakwood, was created six years ago to maintain the cemetery by cleaning up trash, raking leaves, clearing the roads, and removing invasive species like buckthorn and knotweed from the grounds.

Over the years, Harvey and the rest of HOCPA have supported student members of Crypt Keepers from the neighboring universities, SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and Syracuse University. Harvey believes in building a community in all environments, even a cemetery. “If you want a wonderful world, you have to build a wonderful world,” Harvey said.

Paul Harvey is a founding member of Crypt Keepers and the Vice President of the Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association (HOCPA). Paul stands next to the Chapel in Oakwood cemetery on Sept. 8th, 2023. (Photo taken by Ashley Mitchell).

Oakwood Cemetery was founded in 1859 and includes many monuments and mausoleums. The landscape has hills, valleys, and slopes. There are over 60,000 memorials including those of 37 famous people ranging from authors, veterans, governors, to U.S. Congressmen. The cemetery is surrounded by train tracks to the west, with Syracuse University and SUNY-ESF to the north. The east and south sides of the cemetery are surrounded by residential and student neighborhoods.

Crypt Keepers meetings are focused on removing invasive species, clearing sectioned areas, and removing dead vegetation.

In the photo, Crypt Keeper members are seen pulling a large tarp holding cut-up invasive species (Photo taken by Connor Jacobs).

Once an area is cleared, native species are reintroduced into the area, in an effort to restore the native ecosystem. The members of the club will continue to check in on the new plants introduced to monitor their growth.

The large branch from a buckthorn tree (an invasive species) was cut down in Oakwood Cemetery. With the help of members of Crypt Keepers and the President, Alissa, seen in the orange pants, during their meeting on Oct. 28th, 2023, a couple trees were taken down. (Photo taken by Ashley Mitchell).

HOCPA supplies the Crypt Keepers with tools including saws, loppers, shoves, clippers, and rakes. The club also has tarps, gloves, and garbage bags to help manage all the removed material. Even with a large supply of tools, the work can be so intensive that material often run out. In this case, volunteers will go around picking up fallen branches and moving the tarps.

During the Crypt Keeper's meeting on Oct. 4th, 2023, Dorothea Dolan is seen raking a giant pile of leaves, partly shown on the left side of the photo. Throughout the entire meeting, Dorothea creates similar piles along the side of the road, clearing hidden gravestones. (Photo taken by Ashley Mitchell).

The club can't always remove invasive species because of the weather in Syracuse, New York. When it gets wet and snowy, volunteering can be dangerous. Oakwood cemetery's many slopes and hills pose slipping risks especially when work gets technical like cutting down trees. Also, when it gets colder the ground gets hard and roots from sprouts are almost impossible to remove. When there's too much snow on the ground, Crypt Keepers search for garbage that needs to be picked up.

The huge branch was pulled down in Oakwood Cemetery from the tree seen in the top right of the photo after breaking off from the rest of the tree. With the help of Parker Casey, seen in the photo, and a few other members from Crypt Keepers on Oct. 14th, 2023, the tree was cut up and set into a pile to be picked up at a later date. (Photo taken by Ashley Mitchell).

Crypt Keepers creates a community between the city of Syracuse and the schools, SUNY-ESF and Syracuse University. "We build a community and a reputation, and we do boots-on-the-ground conservation methods that help make a positive impact on the cemetery ecosystem" said President of Crypt Keepers, Alissa Altwies. At the end of every meeting, Crypt Keepers take a "pile pic", a photo of the Crypt Keepers and the pile gathered that day.

Oakwood cemetery has existed longer than SUNY-ESF and Syracuse University. It is a site with great historical significance and a home to an environment that should be cared for. Crypt Keepers, with the help of the HOCPA and students from SUNY ESF and Syracuse University, will continue their mission of removing invasive species and improving the ecosystem in the cemetery.

This photo was taken in Fall 2023 at the end of a Crypt Keeper Meeting with members around the pile collected that day. (Photo taken by Connor Jacobs).