Who Will Keep Vermont's Cemeteries Alive?

Dec 12, 2017

John Newton's family goes back more than 200 years in West Hartford.

And the family's story can be tracked in the West Hartford Cemetery, where family members from six generations are buried.

"It's a monument to all of the people who have lived here in West Hartford," Newton says as he looks out across the cemetery. "It's our history."

Newton is president of the West Hartford Cemetery Association a private volunteer organization that oversees this cemetery.  He's been involved with the association for 37 years.

And at 75-years-old, he kind of wonders what the future holds for the property.

"We're not selling too many lots now. Things have changed somewhat so that the activity level has dropped off," he says. "One of our problems is trying to find people to volunteer, keeping it mowed and trimmed, and, a few other things that need doing from time to time. In the meantime, we'll continue maintaining this cemetery as long as possible."

For a long time the West Hartford Cemetery Association relied on work crews from the state prison in Windsor to mow the lawn and maintain the grounds. It was cheap labor.

The prison closed this year, and so now the cemetery, along with all of the others in the town of Hartford, are trying to figure who will pay for the higher maintenance costs from now on.
 

The West Hartford Cemetery is owned by a private association. Some of the private cemeteries in Hartford might be taken over by the town, which will add expenses to its budget.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Under Vermont law, a town becomes responsible for a cemetery if a church or volunteer organization gives it up. So now the town of Hartford is trying to figure out what it will mean to next year's budget if it has to take over any of the private cemeteries.

Newton says he hopes taxpayers are willing to understand what's at stake.

"The town should maintain them, if it comes to that," he says. "We have to decide as a society if we're going to just abandon them, or not. Or are we going to maintain them."

The Selectboard asked Pullar to form a committee to look at all the cemeteries in Hartford, and figure out what it would cost if the town ends up taking over some of the private burial grounds in town.
 

"We're trying to be respectful to the folks that are buried up there and the folks who might want to be buried here inside the Town of Hartford. There are a lot of things that touch this issue and we're trying to be sensitive to that, and still, be understanding to the voters and the taxpayers in the town." - Leo Pullar, Hartford town manager

He says the town is already trying to keep spending down next year, and if the town does take over some of  the cemeteries the town might have to make some tough choices.
 
"If you're going to do something new, then what else aren't you going to do?" he asks. "Because it has to be a tradeoff. We can't just continue to grow, grow, grow, grow out of control."

And he says he understands that it's not just dollars and cents that Hartford has to consider.

"We're trying to be proactive here, and respectful to the folks that are buried up there and the folks who might want to be buried here inside the Town of Hartford," Pullar says. "It's a broad issue, it's not a single point issue, there's a lot of things that touch this issue and we're trying to be sensitive to that, and still be understanding to the voters and the taxpayers in the town."

A statewide issue

There are more than 1,900 cemeteries dotting the Vermont landscape.

About half of them are already run by municipalities, and the rest are owned by churches and volunteer groups.

Patrick Healy is president of the Vermont Cemetery Association. He says he's hearing stories like the one that's playing out in Hartford more and more as budgets tighten and costs increase.

 

The West Hartford Cemetery.

Healy says Vermont cemeteries, many of which are tucked into rocky hillsides and small villages, were not built to grow.

And when they run out of space they lose revenue.

And he says as people like John Newton in Hartford age, it's increasingly hard to find new volunteers to step up.

"Usually the money issue comes up when there's a changing of the guard, when there's a changing of the commissioners," he says. "Most of the time, it's because the trustees or commissioners may be into their 70s and 80s, and they start to die off. And then all of a sudden new people come in and say, 'What are we supposed to do here? There's not enough money.' And that's when things come up."

In 2015, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns asked the Legislature to stop requiring municipalities to take over cemeteries, but lawmakers turned down their call.