Hartford to Focus On Cemeteries

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Hartford — Faced with a grave threat to the town’s burial grounds, the Hartford Selectboard voted on Tuesday night to create a citizen-led committee that will address what cemetery advocates are calling a crisis.

“I don’t think a lot of people in town know what an issue this is,” Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said, shortly before a unanimous vote to direct Town Manager Leo Pullar to draft a formal charge for a committee.

Over the past few years, a handful of cemetery associations have been hard hit by a dwindling number of available plots, aging memberships and the rising costs of protecting crumbling tombstones from falling tree limbs and other dangers. The slow-developing problem is at a flashpoint this year, because a cheap labor source —work crews from Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor — has dried up with the prison’s recent closing.

That closing leaves under-resourced nonprofits like the Quechee Cemetery Association, the Christian Street Cemetery Association and the Hartford Cemetery Association, which had come to rely on the work crews, facing thousands of dollars in additional costs to mow lawns and perform basic maintenance tasks.

“It’s going to basically double their expense, if not more than double their expense,” said Ken Parker, president of the Hartford Cemetery Association and a former member of the Selectboard. Parker has requested a nearly $40,000 increase in appropriations for the HCA.

The plight of the cemeteries is one of several issues competing for dollars in the fiscal year 2019 budget, which will come before voters in March. Even without spending more on the cemeteries, the Selectboard is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cuts to their current draft budget to keep municipal spending increases within a stated goal of 3 percent.

The underlying problem is a cultural shift away from cemeteries as a place of importance.

“There’s a lot of history of families and folks here that have been passing it on and on and on, and in today’s generation, there’s not a lot of interest in cemeteries,” Pullar said.

A lack of new members has been a threat to the associations’ ability to survive.

“Everybody got older and then they passed away and then it got down to just a couple of us,” said Larry Hudson, director and sexton at the Quechee Cemetery Association. The management of the Christian Street Cemetery Association has fallen to a single individual, who has told the town he can no longer continue in the role and intends to stop at the end of this year.

Selectman Alan Johnson said that while he respects the value that others place on cemeteries, he’s also trying to protect the town’s fiscal interests.

“It’s always going to be a hard sell to me. ... What are we not spending money on, that we’re spending money on this,” he said.

Johnson acknowledged that there may be a fiscal interest in propping up the cemetery associations: If any of those groups fail, the town would, under state statute, inherit responsibility for their cemeteries; it already actively manages seven town-owned cemeteries, all of which are closed to new burials.

Pullar said he plans to draft a formal committee charge that will, among other things, try to clarify the town’s responsibilities in state laws, which he said were unclear in several respects. He also has expressed a desire to explore the idea of opening a new town-operated cemetery. Jeff Knight of Knight Funeral Home, and Rep. Sue Buckholz, D-Quechee, and Parker were among those who volunteered to serve on the committee.

Grassi, the chairman, expressed hope that there is untapped interest in cemeteries among the living and that public education could help to revive the associations’ memberships.

“I think a lot of people would step up,” he said. “Their loved ones are buried there. It’s just out of sight, out of mind.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.