Cemeteries face 'Inspection Day' challenges


Most Americans know the last Monday of May as Memorial Day. Vermont Cemetery Association President Patrick Healy sees it as something else: "Inspection Day."

"The public's expectation is that a cemetery should look like a golf course," says Healy, director of Montpelier's Green Mount Cemetery. "But no one is paying golf course fees to have a cemetery lot."

Instead, a rising number of Vermont communities are struggling to provide enough money and manpower to care for historic yet high-maintenance burial grounds.

Consider the town of Chittenden, population 1,258, which is working to maintain four local cemeteries.

"We had a busy and at times difficult year," its three cemetery commissioners write in the most recent town report. "Due to equipment breakdowns, the mowing didn't always get done as fast as the grass grew, and even with a limited schedule, the cost of mowing went over budget."

Nearby Sudbury, population 560, hired a handyman, only to terminate him when he "refused to stay with the routine number of mowings that were budgeted," its town report notes, leaving three locals to juggle the task.

Caretakers a century ago didn't constantly manicure the grounds, but instead installed tall gravestones so they could be seen as the grass grew.

"I would guess that up to 75 percent of the cemeteries in the state were built before the internal combustion engine," Healy says. "Now when people come, they expect it to look perfect."

Healy and his crew start mowing the beginning of May and continue weekly until the end of September.

"Everything is growing real fast right now."

Everything, that is, except for budgets to maintain current grounds and buy expansion acreage. Many of the state's cemeteries were established with 19th-century "perpetual care" endowment funds that can't keep pace with present-day economics or expectations.

Enter the Vermont Cemetery Association, whose members commiserate over problems and collaborate on solutions.

"There's no textbook," Healy says. "We put our heads together and figure out what are the best practices in the least costly manner."

That starts with advising visitors to leave artificial flowers, hanging-plant hooks and solar-powered ornaments at home.

"They can ruin a lawnmower," Healy says.

It continues with creative staffing. The commissioners who oversee Green Mount Cemetery, for example, decided in 1981 to employ state corrections work crews to help maintain their grounds.

"You do what you can with what you have," Healy says.

And it ends with planning for shifting funeral practices, be it a rise in cremation or desire for "green" burials that keep caskets natural or don't use them at all.

"I think future cemeteries are going to be more user-friendly," Healy says. "They're going to have jogging and bike paths and allow different types of use."

Yet for all the changes, the cemetery director sees one constant.

"People still want memorials — they still want to have a place to remember."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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