Lack of Cemetery Plots A Concern in Hartford

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hartford — With a crisis looming for the town’s cemeteries, municipal officials are considering new strategies to preserve existing burial grounds, and make sure the town’s supply of plots doesn’t run out.

Hartford already owns five of 12 cemeteries located within town lines; the rest are managed by private cemetery associations, some of which are threatened by aging memberships and reduced revenues.

At the Quechee Cemetery Association, the financial responsibilities have fallen on the shoulders of Ann Collins, 80, whose parents are buried in one of two properties the association owns between the Old Quechee Road and Quechee Main Street.

“As the older people have died off, the younger generation is not as interested in carrying on,” Collins said.

The cemetery, part of the Quechee Historic Mill District, holds the remains of Vermont’s first lieutenant governor, Joseph Marsh, as well as soldiers from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

But the public’s opportunity to spend eternity with those notable past residents is running out. In 2014, the Hartford Master Plan noted there were only a handful of plots still available in the cemetery; Collins said on Thursday that they’re almost all gone.

“We can still find a few for full burial but not as many as there have been,” she said.

The association’s budget is made up of a $5,000 annual allocation from the town, interest earned from an endowment of less than $40,000, and another $600 whenever anyone buys a burial plot.

With fewer plot sales, diminished interest earnings and flat funding from the town over the past several years, the Quechee Cemetery Association has been forced to dip into its endowment fund to pay for grounds maintenance and other operating costs.

Collins said that, because the model is unsustainable, she is in talks with Hartford officials about the possibility of turning the cemetery maintenance over to the town. Under Vermont state law, if any cemetery association collapses, the town inherits the responsibility of maintaining those burial grounds.

“I think it’s going to come to that point,” Collins said. “Eventually, any income is going to run out.”

Town Manager Leo Pullar said the community is mobilizing to help the Quechee Cemetery Association, and that new volunteers could begin taking an active interest in the site.

“I’m optimistic there,” he said.

Hartford’s five town-owned cemeteries, all of which are closed to new burials, came to the attention of the Selectboard last year, when Selectman Dennis Brown, who also is Collins’ nephew, made a presentation that highlighted the threat that falling tree limbs and careless mowing was posing to the sometimes-fragile tombstones. As a result of that presentation, the Hartford Parks and Recreation Department began doing regular inspections of those properties, drawing on town resources to address obvious problems, according to Pullar.

But Pullar said that the accelerating plight of the private cemetery associations, and concern that the town will run out of burial space, has spurred new interest in the idea of taking a more aggressive approach.

Over the next several decades, the town foresees the options narrowing for those who want an in-town burial.

Other than the Quechee Cemetery, there are only four cemeteries that still have full burial plots to sell, according to the 2014 Master Plan.

The Hartford Cemetery is projected to run out of space in about 12 years; the West Hartford and Christian Cemeteries will run out about 15 years after that, and the roomiest cemetery — Mt. Olivet, at the intersection of Hartford Avenue and Bugbee Street — would fill up its current space by 2064.

Olivet and a pair of contiguous cemeteries on South Main Street (known as South End Cemetery or Old St. Anthony’s Cemetery) are both maintained by Saint Anthony’s Parish, where the Rev. Charles R. Danielson said they are not likely to be abandoned any time soon.

“From our perspective of our Catholic faith, we have a Catholic duty and responsibility to, with reverence and care, make sure they’re maintained in a proper way,” he said.

Danielson acknowledged that the physical upkeep, and financial challenges, make the carrying out of that duty difficult, but said the church leadership is up to the task.

But with other cemetery associations foundering, Pullar said he hopes to make a presentation to the Selectboard about possible solutions early next month.

Rather than its current system of allocating about $15,000 to be divided by five private cemetery associations, he’s currently weighing different alternatives, including creating a town cemetery committee that would be tasked with coordinating efforts, and the creation of a new town-owned cemetery that would, unlike the ancient cemeteries it has inherited, function as an active option for recent decedents.

“Does this town need to start looking at available land to have a cemetery and maybe get in the business of running a cemetery?” he asked. “The town of Hanover does, and Lebanon does, and we do not.”

Brown acknowledged that taking on new town-owned enterprises would run against the grain of a recent push among Selectboard members to reduce, rather than expand, the town’s infrastructure. But, he said, it might be worth it.

“It’s a tough one,” he said. “In the end, I think we have a moral responsibility to take care of our fallen citizens.”

The recent closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor has exacerbated the situation, because prisoner work crews have spent the past few years performing low-cost maintenance work for both town-owned and privately owned cemeteries.

Collins said the loss of the inexpensive labor will accelerate the Quechee Cemetery Association’s use of its reserve funds, and Pullar said it will also increase the cost to the town of maintaining its own grounds.

Pullar said that corrections officials are considering a proposal that would allow work crews from elsewhere to come to Hartford.

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