The pets buried in Forever Angels Pet Cemetery at Abbingdon Hill in Montgomery would be thankful for the work Rita Levine has done to revitalize their final resting place.
The cemetery had been abandoned and auctioned off to a land developer, who had no idea he had purchased a pet cemetery when he bought 15 ½ acres of land at auction in Orange County in 2017. When Rita Levine learned that the cemetery, then called Abbingdon Hill, had not only been abandoned but sold, she knew time was not on her side. She quickly formed a not-for-profit corporation and was able to secure the cemetery, renaming it Forever Angels Pet Cemetery at Abbingdon Hill. Her nonprofit bears the same name as the cemetery.
The cemetery was in total disrepair, overgrown with weeds, stones covered in lichen and crumbling apart. A real estate broker by trade, Levine unearthed the facts surrounding the cemetery and marshalled her energy into not only stopping what could have been a project for a bulldozer but into resurrecting and restoring the cemetery. The cemetery is home to approximately 10,000 souls including dogs, cats, rabbits and a circus elephant. A dozen devoted pet owners’ cremated remains, including a war veteran, lay in rest as well beside their dearly loved animals.
Levine was motivated to restore the cemetery, as it is near and dear to her heart. Her relationship with the cemetery is more than 20 years old. Nine of her own pets are buried there.
“When I learned it [the cemetery] was in trouble, I just knew that I had to save it,” Levine said. “My pets are there, they’re my children and there are thousands of other pets at the cemetery. The way I feel about this place, other people feel the same way and it had to be saved.”
Levine began restoring the cemetery in early April of 2018. Her first order of business involved identifying all the graves: there was no map of the cemetery and many plots had no headstones. There were no records to work with except the names of people who had buried their animals with the confidence that the cemetery would always be there. That was where the journey began, trying to match people with plots. She wrote to every name on the list, assuring people that the cemetery was secure and asking for help in identifying the animals and the plots in which they lay.
As the task unfolded, it became a massive undertaking. Not only were many graves unidentifiable, the grounds themselves were completely overgrown and broken down.
“It was in shambles,” Levine said. “Licensing had been lost and utilities turned off. This wonderful place was so neglected as to be unrecognizable.”
The physical task of restoration involved cleaning all the headstones, restoring water to the property, mowing, cleaning years of fallen leaves and cutting tree branches. Levine and her volunteer team are still cleaning up buildings that are ready to be torn down, to have a place to work until funds become available to replace them.
Filled with determination, Levine purchased a tractor and built relationships with vendors who supply caskets as well as supplies needed in order to operate. She invested her own money and along with the help of her husband and family friend, they have been working every day to improve the cemetery. Money trickled in from donations, while maintenance fees for some of the plots, daily burials and cremations helped to bring in some necessary funds.
Levine kept all the people she could locate apprised of the activity at the cemetery. Newsletters provided updated information on a quarterly basis, each one filled with love and hope. A project was created called Adopt a Grave to help maintain gravesites that were abandoned, either because the owners had died, moved on or were financially unable to maintain the grave.
The cemetery has come a long way. State licensing as a pet cemetery and crematory have been obtained. The crematorium was totally renovated and is now operational. After years of neglect, pot holes have been filled in, grounds are mowed weekly, water has been restored, headstones have been cleaned of lichen and moss and straightened. Interior stone walls have been built, tree branches have been trimmed, downed trees removed, years of debris taken away and new signage installed. The cemetery, tended to with love and perseverance, now looks like a haven, a place to commune with those who were so dearly loved in life. The work is endless and ongoing and yet it is transforming every day.
Moving forward, the nonprofit plans on replacing the office within the buildings and rebuilding the structure surrounding the crematorium. They also need to create a website. Plans are in the works for a memorial garden, where owners can spread their pets’ ashes. Forever Angels Pet Cemetery also hopes to build a gazebo for visitors.
Those interested in helping the cemetery can donate money to Forever Angels Pet Cemetery, PO Box 250, Wallkill, NY 12589.
“We do need funds,” Levine said. “It has taken a tremendous amount of capital to restore the cemetery to this point.”
People can also help by tidying up the cemetery.
Pet owners will flock to the pet cemetery this Sunday for National Pet Memorial Day. People will come from all over to pay respects to their dead pets. Owners will share stories about their pets both alive and deceased. The event will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Forever Angels Pet Cemetery at Abbingdon Hill, 148 Youngblood Road in Montgomery.