MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Recover the church. Rehab the cemetery. Above all, respect the dead.
Those are the goals Will Keenan set for himself when he purchased the Goshen United Methodist Church and nearby cemetery on Route 47, and but for one major misstep, Keenan believes he’s held true to his vision.
Not all area residents agree, particularly not Donald and Eileen Douglass, Goshen residents whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery.
At issue is a Halloween fundraiser Keenan had planned for the cemetery — and later canceled parts of due to negative response — that included a seance and a buried-alive experience.
“We have plots there,” Donald Douglass said, referring to two plots given him by his father for Donald and Eileen. “We assumed that the graveyard is sacred, but it’s not sacred. I feel that he’s dishonored the graveyard.”
Last week, Donald Douglass said that not only did he no longer want to one day be buried in the cemetery, he was considering moving his parents’ remains to another graveyard.
“I want to move my parents,” he said. “But that starts the dominoes. Should I move my grandparents? Should I move my great-grandparents?”
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Keenan, a Hollywood stuntman, cult movie star and development consultant for Bollywood films, bought the church and graveyard earlier this year from the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, and in one of his first actions, renamed the building as the Church of St. Babs after his recently deceased mother.
Purchasing the cemetery, Keenan said, was part of the deal required by the church. It was an unseverable package, he said. He drained his funds to buy the property, paying all cash, and then formed a nonprofit business.
Carolyn Conover, director of communications for the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, couldn't confirm Keenan's assertion that he had to buy the church and cemetery together but said the church had reached out to families with concerns about the graveyard.
“Cemeteries are a very special place in the life of a church,” Conover said. “They're sacred and places of respect.”
Prior to that, Keenan said, his neighbors in Goshen were happy with his efforts. He had begun restoration of the church and cleaned up the cemetery.
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“Honestly,” Keenan said in an interview last week, “if anything was going to upset people, I thought that renaming the church after my mother would be it.”
But neighbors found favor in his actions. They embraced Keenan and what he described as his rock ’n’ roll church, he said. A church for people recovering from addictions. A sanctuary for those folks who need a few nights of safety. A place of worship for any religion, as well as those who have no religion at all.
“The church of misfits,” Keenan said. “The church of second chances.”
Keenan’s vision for the church seemed right at home in the 19th century town of Goshen.
But it was his Halloween plans for the cemetery that drew the ire of residents.
An event planned as a fundraiser for his endeavor of saving the church and cemetery went horribly awry when he offered tours of the graveyard with historically accurate representations of those buried in the cemetery, a seance, and most of all, a buried-alive experience.
In the latter, people had the opportunity to lie in a coffin in shallow grave and then the lid would be closed and they would have to knock for their freedom.
It was his one great mistake, Keenan said.
“I’m a spiritual dude,” he said. “With the buried-alive experience, I wanted to give people the chance to appreciate life.”
Yet as outrage grew in Goshen, Keenan said he canceled the majority of the Halloween event, especially after his neighbors marched on the church in what he called a town-hall meeting.
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“I got on my knees in this church and begged their forgiveness,” he said. “And then I led them out to that shallow grave and filled it in by myself.”
Keenan, raised a Catholic and a former altar boy, describes himself as deeply spiritual, and said all of the events he planned around Halloween were to remind people they were alive and to be thankful for that.
“Everyone who comes in here is being ministered to at some point,” he said.
Donald Douglass doesn’t agree, and last week compared Keenan to a character from “Leave it to Beaver.”
“To me he’s an Eddie Haskell,” Donald Douglass said. “Yes, Mrs. Cleaver. No, Mrs. Cleaver. And then he does what he wants.”
Last month, Donald Douglass told Township Committee members he didn’t believe Keenan had canceled the Halloween event. Eileen Douglass said the cemetery was still decorated, and she was concerned about Keenan’s lack of respect for the dead.
“People still own grave plots there, with plans to be buried in the cemetery,” she said.
According to the Douglasses, 10 to 11 people own plots at the cemetery. Some have receipts for the purchase, at least one dating to the 1950s. Others have no more than a memory of the purchase of a plot.
None has plot deeds of which Donald Douglass is aware.
“I’ve got a scrap of paper somewhere that shows that my father bought two plots,” Donald Douglass said.
At the November committee meeting, Township Attorney Frank Corrado said the sale of the cemetery to Keenan raises a lot of issues.
“I’m not sure how the church could sell property that you have rights to,” Corrado said, referring to the plots. “The township is as surprised as anybody when we found out the church and cemetery were sold to a private person.”
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Last week, Corrado said he was researching the sale of the cemetery.
“I’m looking into any regulatory actions that the township can take concerning cemeteries,” he said.
Conover said she couldn’t comment on the legality of the sale of the cemetery, and that a church attorney would contact The Gazette. As of Monday, no contact had been received.
For his part, Keenan said he would honor any commitments for burial at the cemetery that were made by the Methodist Church.
“It doesn’t matter if they have a receipt,” Keenan said. “If they truly believe in their hearts that they have a plot here, they will be buried in this cemetery.”
There aren’t many plots left, he said.
“Only a few. But I plan to be buried here.”