Vermont cemeteries face unusual challenges

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VERMONT — Cemeteries are supposed to be places to rest in peace. But tell that to the Vermonters tending to them.

"Climate change is affecting the number of times we are mowing," municipal leaders in Westmore, population 350, write in this year's town report. "The growing season for the grass lasts a lot longer into the fall than it has before, so we have to mow more, which costs more."

Most visitors only think about such concerns on Memorial Day, but caretakers statewide are facing challenges year-round. Consider the town of Sudbury's recent call for cemetery commissioners.

"Some of the duties would include repairs and restoration of headstones," writes the Select Board in the town of 560. "Last year a resident came forward showing much interest in the position. They were aware of the work that needs to be done and even volunteered to plant flower bulbs. The appointment was made, but we never saw the person again and learned they moved out of town."

Peers in Albany, population 840, are hampered by a lack of information.

"We have had recent interest in people acquiring lots in some of the older cemeteries the town oversees," the Select Board there writes. "The problem we run into is that we have no maps on these old cemeteries and some of the stones are no longer there."

As a result, Albany residents voted in March to spend $8,515 for mapping with ground-penetrating, grave-seeking radar.

"We haven't started yet due to the fact we need dry weather," Town Clerk Debra Ann Geoffroy says. "As soon as we get some, we will."

Radar isn't the only technology caretakers are tapping. The Vermont Cemetery Association boasts a website ("all cemeteries," it declares, "share the same concerns and problems — they can also share the same solutions"), while the Vermont Old Cemetery Association has a home page that announces "We're on Facebook!"

The organizations plugged into the internet earlier this year to call attention to a Vermont House plan to change the minimum burial depth in cemeteries from 5 feet to 3 feet.

"What is next in the legislative arena?" Patrick Healy, president of the Vermont Cemetery Association, wrote his peers. "Will we be mandated to perform green burials or perform winter burials? Please tell your representative and senators not to move this bill any further until the proper research is done or perhaps found."

But after the Senate added language to note "nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to prohibit the interment of a human body at a depth greater than 3 feet below the surface of the ground," Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law this month.

The town of Troy, population 1,662, isn't worried: It didn't have to bury anyone this past year, "which just proves people are living longer," Cemetery Board Chairman Roger Morin says.

Back in Westmore, cemetery commissioners report a more pressing debate over a spruce tree that some locals complained was dying and others claimed was a favorite perch of a bald eagle.

"As we were walking away from that tree, we looked back and there was the bald eagle circling," they write. "Talk about perfect timing — we decided to leave the tree."

Commissioners in Reading say "town cemeteries had another great year!" thanks to help from neighbors and aspiring Eagle Scouts.

"We encourage everyone to visit at least one of these unique public places to appreciate the value they add to our town," they write. "Put it on your VT bucket list!"

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

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