GOSHEN – Eileen and Donald Douglas said they never dreamed they would be facing a possible decision to relocate Donald’s parents from the cemetery at the former Goshen United Methodist Church.
The couple own plots adjacent to Donald’s parents in anticipation of one day joining their loved ones at the cemetery on Route 47.
At the beginning of the year, things changed for Donald Douglas when the church and the cemetery were sold by The Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The land was purchased by entertainment personality and cult movie actor Will Keenan.
Keenan renamed the church in honor of his deceased mother, calling it the Church of St. Babs. He has transformed the space into a residence, a support center for addicted individuals, a performance space and a spiritual retreat.
The property is operated by a non-profit organization set up by Keenan.
An outdoor sign lists a salon, studio and a store and promises games, history tours and an “open mic” on Friday nights.
The foundation’s Facebook page shows pictures of a Buddha and other Eastern religious symbols underscoring the fact that the new church does not embrace a specific denomination.
In one picture a mini gargoyle is positioned to keep out those “unworthy to enter.”
All the changes might upset some who knew the church for its Methodist congregation, but what has unnerved Donald Douglas is the use that was made of the cemetery during the recent Halloween holidays.
As Halloween, a decidedly unchristian holiday approached, signs went up on the property announcing a Halloween Scare like no other. Plans called for ghost tours through the cemetery, a buried alive sequence with a hole dug adjacent to the cemetery, a promised séance with a Civil War veteran buried on the land and Halloween decorations draping tombstones.
One Facebook comment accused Keenan of using the gravesites as “props and backdrops” to support his performance art.
Eileen Douglas said that she contacted the Methodist Conference and was promised a discussion with someone who could answer her questions. She said she never received a return call.
Persisting, Douglas next called the Cemetery Board for the southern part of the state, only to be told that the land is considered a private cemetery outside the reach of the board.
Douglas took her pleas for help to Middle Township Committee on Nov. 7 hoping that municipal ordinances might apply. She also contacted state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1st).
Both Douglases had expected some form of “covenants and restrictions to the deed to protect the interred and for people who hold funeral plots.” After researching the deed she said, "I was wrong on both.”
According to Carolyn Conover, director of communications for the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, “Cemeteries are sacred places.”
She said the church and cemetery were sold “with the requirement that the cemetery remain in good condition repair and satisfactory condition.”
Conover said that the requirements were part of the sales agreement. She added that the new owner, Keenan, was “provided the plot maps and grave receipts…so that he could continue to comply with all applicable laws regarding cemeteries and cemetery management.”
The Douglas' fear is that such requirements to abide by “applicable laws” do not ensure an environment in which proper reverence for the deceased is observed. This has moved to an area of values rather than laws, and there is no obvious arbiter.
Attempts to reach Keenan at the church were unsuccessful, with the property locked and empty on several visits.
On his Facebook page, Keenan responded to a question concerning the cemetery by promising “continued maintenance and beautification.”
When Eileen Douglas spoke with Keenan, she said that he assured her that “he understood that the cemetery was hallowed ground.”
Many of Keenan’s actions indicate a desire to play a positive role in the community. He is advertising a free Thanksgiving dinner for those unable to contribute to an event at the church.
He frequently speaks of his commitment to aid recovering addicts.
Yet he expects people to reconcile that traditional sense of purpose with a sign that combines “Sister Laura’s Church of Recovery” with “Brother Will’s Church of Rock N Roll.”
For some, making that connection was not part of the arrangement when they selected a Methodist Church as the site for a final resting place.
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.