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Jim Kenyon: Grave Concerns for Lebanon’s History

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/2/2017 12:50:46 AM
Modified: 7/2/2017 1:36:59 PM

Father Time, the elements and vandals have taken a toll over the years on the centuries-old marble and slate headstones in Lebanon’s School Street Cemetery. Some have broken into pieces. Others, still intact, have toppled to the ground under the strain of their own weight and brittle foundations.

Last week, Lebanon Historical Society President Fran Hanchett showed me around what was originally called the Village Cemetery, which includes the graves of some Revolutionary War veterans.

Early on the tour, Hanchett knelt down to brush grass clippings off a fallen headstone. The marble slab has been in disrepair for so long that it’s now fully embedded in the lawn.

Joseph Downer died on Aug. 24, 1841. He was 82. “His family was among the first settlers in Lebanon,” said Hanchett. “Many of them came from Connecticut during the land grant years. They came in the summer to clear the land, but (Downer) was one of those who stayed through the winter.

“All of our history is in this cemetery.”

History that’s crumbling — literally — before our eyes.

City officials acknowledge that the condition of headstones in some of Lebanon’s older cemeteries, particularly School Street, leave much to be desired. But the city’s hands are tied, they say.

How’s that?

In 1966, the City Council established the “Cemetery Perpetual Care Trust Fund” to maintain Lebanon’s public burial grounds, of which there are now eight. Under City Ordinance No. 25, Lebanon began charging a one-time perpetual care fee of $250 for cemetery lots purchased after Aug. 1, 1966. Over the last 50 years, nearly than 3,300 individuals have purchased lots. As of Dec. 31, 2016, the trust fund had grown to $888,164.

With close to a million bucks sitting in the bank for perpetual care, couldn’t the city afford to repair broken headstones?

But perpetual care doesn’t mean what you think. At least, not by Lebanon’s definition. The ordinance requires only that the city perform routine ground maintenance, such as the mowing and trimming of grass at “reasonable intervals.”

Fixing broken headstones isn’t part of the deal.

In fact, from the viewpoint of city officials, the 1966 ordinance even forbids city workers from straightening old gravestones that are leaning to the point of falling over.

The rationale?

“They’re considered personal property,” said Len Jarvi, the city’s longtime finance director.

The bottom line: Lebanon’s cemeteries are on public land, but headstones are privately owned. Sounds like a condominium association.

And what about the deceased who might not have descendants still in the area who could be called upon when a headstone needs repair? What if descendants aren’t in a financial position to pay for repairs?

The 1966 ordinance doesn’t seem to take those things into account. Making matters worse, the city’s insurance doesn’t cover cemetery vandalism, which has been a problem from time to time.

“It’s frustrating all the way around,” Jarvi said.

He won’t get an argument from Lebanon natives Pam and Reg Laro. Reg’s ancestors, including his great-grandfather David Carlisle, a Civil War veteran, are buried in Glenwood Cemetery.

The Laros, who are retired and spend a good part of the year in warmer climates, were unaware the headstones for Carlisle, who died in 1885, and several other relatives had broken into pieces, until Hanchett told them. Hanchett and Pam Laro are sisters.

This spring, Pam contacted Michael Lavalla, the city’s director of public works who oversees cemetery upkeep. Lavalla sent the Laros a copy of the 1966 city ordinance.

“Had I known that the city would not fix the leaning stones I would have fixed them myself before they collapsed completely,” Reg Laro told me in an email. “I thought perpetual care meant just that.”

Earlier this month, the Laros and his brother, Phil, spent $560 for a stonemason to make repairs.

After hearing about the Laros’ experience, I was curious how a neighboring community handled headstones in need of fixing.

So I called Hanover. The town doesn’t have a perpetual care trust fund, and would prefer families pick up repair costs. But town officials recognize that’s not always realistic.

A relatively small amount of money, about $6,000 this year, is earmarked in the annual town budget for an outside contractor to perform headstone work.

Which brings me back to Lebanon. When the City Council established its trust fund 50 years ago, it stipulated that only interest earnings and none of the principal could be spent. Last year, the fund earned $14,649 in interest.

With routine maintenance costing roughly $120,000 a year (Hanover spends about the same), the interest earned from the perpetual care fund doesn’t go far.

So what’s the answer?

Sadly, some headstones are probably beyond repair. But that doesn’t mean the city should continue to ignore the problem. “It’s an embarrassment,” Hanchett told me. “Our history is being destroyed, and nobody seems to care.”

Mayor Sue Prentiss told me that she appreciates Hanchett for “keeping the flame burning.” The City Council needs a “good policy discussion” the mayor said. “There’s a way we could probably solve the problem, and still have a healthy trust fund.”

It may take a lawyer to iron out the details, but it would seem within the council’s purview to modify the terms of the trust. What would be the harm in withdrawing a small portion of the $900,000 or so in principal every year for headstone repairs?

Continued neglect will only worsen the problem. Father Time doesn’t stop. Not even in cemeteries.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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