Lebanon to Form Cemetery Board

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2018 12:22:50 AM
Modified: 3/26/2018 12:22:53 AM

Lebanon — If the city hopes to preserve its historic cemeteries and burial grounds, its management of those spaces must change, according to a group that recently studied how best to manage Lebanon’s public cemeteries.

Officials can no longer rely on public works officials to maintain Lebanon’s eight cemeteries by themselves, members of the Lebanon’s Cemeteries and Governance Task Force told the City Council last week.

Instead, they said, a permanent board of trustees is needed to provide oversight, and a full-time sexton should be appointed to carry out its vision.

More money and volunteers are also needed to restore headstones and prevent other burial markers from decaying, along with better planning to direct the work, the task force recommended.

“I think to have the public enjoy the cemeteries and have them be a public space is important,” said Assistant Mayor Tim McNamara, the task force’s leader, in an audio recording of Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Ultimately, the council unanimously voted to accept the task force’s recommendations, and officials soon will be working to amend Lebanon’s city code to allow for the appointment of a cemetery board of trustees.

However, officials have yet to decide how many people will serve on the permanent board, or what interests will be represented.

The Cemeteries and Governance Task Force, which wrapped up its work in February, included members from the Lebanon Heritage Committee, Lebanon Historical Society, veterans’ organizations and funeral homes.

The task force was formed last fall after the City Council fielded several complaints from Lebanon residents decrying the state of city cemeteries.

Knocked-over and deteriorating headstones could be found in many public spaces, they warned, including the historic School Street Cemetery, home to some of Lebanon’s earliest residents and influential citizens.

While Lebanon’s Public Works Department is charged with caring for the cemeteries, it was hamstrung by perpetual care agreements signed by the deceased and their family members.

Grave markers are personal property and cannot be removed or maintained without the city obtaining a court order, Lebanon’s attorneys told the City Council. Officials also found the trust funds created alongside each agreement couldn’t be used for improvements, such as stone restoration, and were largely sitting unused.

McNamara said the appointment of cemetery trustees would be essential in determining the future of the open spaces.

“We felt the cemeteries in Lebanon are obviously an extremely important asset to the city, that they are a unique asset (and) they serve not only as a resting place for our citizens, but ... also have a really strong cultural and historical aspect,” he said.

Appointing a cemetery sexton, a full-time city employee, is also important to restoration and maintenance efforts, McNamara said. The position has been vacant for years, he said, which resulted in public works employees juggling cemetery duties among the department’s other projects.

“We felt that it is extremely important that we have someone on the city staff whose primary mission is the cemeteries,” McNamara said, adding the hire could come from Lebanon’s existing staffers.

The group also recommended creating a trust, to be managed by cemetery trustees, in which the city could funnel taxpayer money, donations and potential fee increases.

The city’s $250 perpetual care fee is low compared to other communities and should be increased to pay for improvements, said McNamara, who recommended the City Council also budget more money for cemetery maintenance.

“This is going to take years to correct,” he said of the cemeteries’ deterioration. “We’ll never be able to devote the amount of money into it in any one year.”

Other recommendations include conducting an inventory of cemetery plots and using volunteers help to stabilize crooked or falling gravestones.

The strategies were largely welcomed by city councilors, who applauded the task force’s months-long effort.

“I’ll be happy to support all of the recommendations that have been proposed, especially creating the cemetery board of trustees as soon as possible,” Councilor Karen Liot Hill said shortly before Wednesday’s vote.

As the city begins to adopt those strategies, it will also begin taking necessary legal action to ensure it can care for abandoned gravestones, said Deputy City Manager Paula Maville.

The City Council should expect to vote on amendments to Lebanon’s city code, and appoint cemetery trustees, sometime in May, she said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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