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In Hartford, Aging Cemeteries Need Upkeep and Repairs but Lack Resources

  • Kellen Ames, of Lebanon, N.H., mows the grass of the Christian Street Cemetery, in White River Junction, on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2018. The cemetery is home to numerous gravestones from the 1800s. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • William Aldrich, of Hartford, Vt., often gives his family plot extra care at the Hartford Cemetery. He trims around the stones and flowers where his father, brother, uncle, fiancée, and sister's boyfriend are buried. "I'm just overseeing it while I'm alive." he said on Aug. 9, 2018. His father Kenneth Aldrich Sr. bought the plot in the 1970s. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Andrew Knight, whose family owns Knight Funeral Home & Crematory, cleans up around a gravesite that had just been dug on Aug. 9, 2018 in Harford, Vt., at the Hartford Cemetery. The cemetery is one of Hartford's privately-owned cemeteries. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ralph Knight, left, his grandson Andrew Knight, and son Jeff Knight, of Knight Funeral Home & Crematory dig and prepare a gravesite at the Hartford Cemetery on Aug. 9, 2018 in Hartford, Vt. The cemetery is one of Hartford's privately-owned cemeteries.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barbara Hazen studies a gravestone at the Christian Street Cemetery in Wilder, Vt., on June 19, 2018. Hazen grew up down the road from the cemetery and now lives part-time in Oregon. Her brother is the sexton of the privately owned cemetery and asked for her help in documenting all of the gravestones. Hazen's great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Hazen, who died in 1782 and had 16 children, is buried there. Several of Hartford's founders are buried in the cemetery, and Barbara Hazen is concerned that many of the gravestones are in disrepair. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2018

Hartford — Handwritten entries on an old window shade constitute the sole surviving record of who is buried in which of the gridded grass plots in the Christian Street Cemetery on Route 5.

The Quechee Cemetery has done a bit better — its official burial records are kept on index cards in a shoebox in the garage of the aging cemetery sexton.

Those details, revealed recently by Ken Parker, of the Hartford Cemetery Committee, demonstrate one problem facing the town’s private cemetery associations: In graveyards, where more than a quarter of the graves typically cannot be identified by reading tombstones, record-keeping systems are both ad-hoc and frighteningly vulnerable.

But that’s just one of a number of problems the various cemetery associations are dealing with. Another one — the associations’ limited financial resources — may soon become a concern for Hartford taxpayers if those organizations fold and their responsibilities fall in the lap of town government.

The 1.8 acre Christian Street Cemetery dates back to 1778, and originally was a private family plot for the Hazen family. Like many of Hartford’s cemeteries, it is the final resting place for soldiers from military conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Drawing a labeled map of the Christian Street Cemetery on the window shade proved to be an effective enough system for the day-to-day needs of its recently retired sexton, said Parker, who also is president of the Hartford Cemetery Association.

“It worked for him. But wait a minute,” Parker said on Monday. “If that piece of information were to disintegrate or be destroyed and he’s not around any longer, who knows where Uncle Bill or Aunt Mary or brother James are buried up there? The grave markers don’t always tell.”

One person who knows that all too well is William Harvey Aldrich, 58, who says that his grandfather (also named William Harvey Aldrich) was buried in the Hartford Cemetery decades ago— but exactly where, no one can say for sure.

“They lost the plans to that area,” Aldrich said. “There are four or five people up there with no stone.”

Aldrich said that he’d like to put up a grave marker, but only if he knows that it corresponds to his grandfather’s remains.

“It’s lost to history, is what it is,” he said.

Crumbling Memories

In late June, Parker asked the town, which already keeps burial records that match people to specific cemeteries, to become the central repository for where, exactly, in those cemeteries the deceased are buried.

In addition to thousands of former Hartford residents for whom there is little information available, the town’s dozen or so cemeteries house many notables.

Former Vermont Governor and Civil War veteran Samuel Pingree was laid to rest in 1922 in the Hartford Point Cemetery, located off Route 14 between the Shady Lawn Hotel and Interstate 89. It also holds the remains of former state treasurer John Bacon, and U.S. Congressman George Wales (who was serving as Hartford’s town clerk at the time of his death in 1860). And William Strong, a self-educated land surveyor who served as Windsor County Sheriff before being elected as a U.S. congressman in 1811, is interred in the Hilltop Cemetery, which lies near the Waldorf School over Quechee Main Street.

Town Manager Leo Pullar said he recognizes how important it is to ensure the records are preserved. But before it accepts stewardship of that information, the town needs to work through questions about the workload impact on an already burdened town clerk’s office, as well as the implications of accepting the records of private organizations.

At the conclusion of Parker’s presentation, Selectboard members indicated they would address the record-keeping issue when they considered a broader set of recommendations from the Cemetery Committee, which is due later this month.

The report is likely to contain unwelcome news for the Selectboard, because it’s not just the records that are in danger of fading from memory.

It’s the associations themselves.

Struggling Associations

“The Christian Street Cemetery is in crisis,” said Selectman Dennis Brown, the Selectboard’s liaison to the Cemetery Committee.

“They have enough money to mow this year but then they’re out of money,” Brown said. “That’s all they have left.”

The town of Hartford, which owns seven of the town’s 16 cemeteries, is already struggling to keep up with their maintenance needs.

The other nine are privately owned, often by associations that include family members of those who are buried there. And for the past decade or more, those associations have been showing signs of failing — the Christian Street Cemetery, the Quechee Cemetery Association and the Hartford Cemetery Association all have fewer than four members each, and most of those members are past retirement age.

“The next generation is not stepping up to fill the void,” Parker said.

As a result, the cemeteries are uninsured and under-maintained.

That’s forced those with loved ones in the cemeteries to choose between allowing them to look shabby, or taking on the work themselves. Aldrich says that, for the past 20 years, every couple of weeks he takes his own lawnmower to the plot where his father and other loved ones are buried. He trims the trees that crowd the access road, to give people less of a reason to drive over gravesites to get to the rear section. When his fiancee died earlier this year, he had to take special care.

“Three times before the funeral, I hand-mowed it,” he said.”I just wanted it nice. I didn’t want people to think she was buried in a mess.”

In addition to dwindling membership, the associations have skeletal budgets, which come primarily from three sources — town appropriations ranging from $600 to $7,500 annually, the sale of new cemetery plots for roughly $600 each, and interest on endowments that were built when the organizations were more vibrant.

The Hartford Cemetery Association, which is the largest of those that receive municipal funding, gets $7,500 a year from the town, roughly $500 in endowment interest, and sold two plots last year, for about $1,200, Parker said.

Last year, he asked the town to increase the Hartford Cemetery Association’s appropriation by nearly $40,000, the amount he estimated is actually needed to prevent the cemetery from sliding into further disrepair. The Selectboard didn’t grant that funding, but responded by forming the Cemetery Committee, which it charged with evaluating the town’s cemeteries, and coming up with recommendations.

Private cemeteries are part of that assessment, because the town has a financial stake in them, too.

That’s because, when a cemetery association ceases to exist, it reverts to the ownership of the municipality, and the town becomes the only entity with an obligation to prevent it from returning to forest. Under Vermont law, the town has a legal responsibility to spend $500 annually to maintain its publicly owned cemeteries, but that doesn’t begin to touch the cost of maintenance. Grass needs to be mowed, and dead trees need to be removed before they fall and break ancient grave markers. The town already spends thousands on these services on its cemeteries every year — and on repairing or restoring headstones that have either deteriorated naturally, or been broken by careless mowing or falling tree limbs that weren’t addressed in time. The town appropriates $15,800 each year to the private associations, and spends another $3,000 on headstone repair, mowing and maintenance for its public cemeteries, all of which have been inactive — closed to new burials — for decades.

Loss of Support

Though Hartford’s cemeteries have been threatened by a slow decline for decades, they suffered a devastating blow this summer, the first mowing season since the town lost low-cost work crews from the recently closed Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor.

The last time the associations had to pay full price for mowing was seven years ago, at the height of the recession. They were dismayed, said Parker, to find that the costs have gone up even as their means have declined.

“This year we had to go into the marketplace and find somebody who could mow one or more of the places. That was sticker shock,” he said. “Reality has hit us in the face.”

For the Hartford Cemetery Association, the Department of Corrections charged $300 per mowing, which added up to about $5,000 over the course of the year.

This summer, he said, he had to pay $1,600 per mowing, which increased the annual cost to about $24,000, a big jump over the $16,000 he paid in 2009. He also said that a microburst tore through the cemetery, forcing the association to pay $1,000 to remove a tree.

“We’re trying to keep them mowed and have a dignified appearance, but we’re not able to do any of the maintenance, let alone the needed repair work,” he said. “Realistically, when we looked at what it might cost to take care of the Hartford cemetery, not doing anything outlandish but just doing stuff that needs to be done, we’re looking in the vicinity of $60,000 to $70,000 a year.”

Parker said he spent a good chunk of the HCA’s reserves to keep pace this year, and that by the end of next year, he’ll run out of money.

That’s the same dynamic that’s bringing the Christian Street Cemetery to the brink of folding.

Brown said the cost of insurance — roughly $2,000 a year per association — is out of reach for the groups, which leaves association members vulnerable to lawsuits from people who might trip on a headstone or sunken grave.

Aldrich said that he’d like to see the town step in, to provide support and oversight that would help to keep the cemeteries dignified. Not only for his missing grandfather, or his father and fiancee and the others who have died, but for those who are still living.

“Just knowing that when I pass away, and my mother’s going to pass away, I want to know that somebody’s going to take care of the Aldrich plot there and all the graves there,” he said. “They’re nice cemeteries, you know, if they’re kept up. And they should be. You know, it’s our final resting place.”

Seeking Solutions

Tom Giffin, president of the Vermont Old Cemetery Association, said Hartford is not alone in its struggles.

“A lot of communities are having a problem with this,” he said. “We have 1,900-plus cemeteries in Vermont, and a lot depend on their towns or cities. I get calls all the time. Barely a week goes by that I don’t get a phone call from somebody asking for help.”

And James Duggan, who works with the State Historic Preservation Office, said that, though the problem is widespread, there don’t seem to be any regional fixes in the pipeline.

“I think that’s a problem, certainly, across the state,” he said. “I don’t know of any concerted effort to address that other than on a town-by-town basis.”

Giffin, who is the cemetery commissioner for Rutland, said he maintains its four publicly owned cemeteries for a cut-rate cost of $6,000, in part because prison work crews provide mowing and maintenance services.

Communities without access to cheap labor have to think outside the box — and some ideas being floated are very outside the box.

Giffin said Vermonters might consider looking to their agricultural past, and hire from among a growing number of small companies that provide grass-trimming through the use of sheep.

“They come in with movable fences,” Giffin said. “They do a nice job.”

And Selectboard member Alan Johnson, a clean energy advocate who often keeps abreast of energy efficiency technologies, suggested during a recent meeting that instead, the town might look toward the future — small grass-mowing robots that operate on the same principle as autonomous vacuum units.

Other ideas that have been floated include folding cemeteries and all responsibilities into the existing Parks and Recreation Department, forming a permanent town Cemetery Commission, and asking the Hartford Historical Society to curate the burial records.

In the meantime, the Hartford Cemetery Committee is continuing to work on its recommendations — it has identified $215,000 in deferred maintenance costs to date, and is pricing out different mowing alternatives.

The committee is next scheduled to meet on Aug. 20.

Giffin said he also keeps costs down in Rutland by providing much of the gravestone repair work himself, relying on his own stone repair skills, and by aggressively networking with volunteer groups that don’t mind pitching in a few hours of labor.

“If the towns value their history, they will find the money to do it, somehow,” he said. “It’s something the community has to come to grips with.”

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