Cemetery Maintenance

(from Maine Townsman, April 2009)
By Lee Burnett

A well-kept cemetery is a community asset. All at once, it’s a family gathering spot, a trove of local history, green space, and a site for passive recreation.

And yet cemetery maintenance ranks pretty near the bottom of most municipal priority lists. Service on a cemetery committee is the epitome of laboring in obscurity. This unsung responsibility is one that cemetery buffs have labored long to get municipalities to take more seriously.

“You gotta take pride,” said Steve Burrill, the dean of cemetery maintenance in Maine. Burrill is a third-generation superintendent of private Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor and a long-time officer in the Maine Cemetery Association, an association for both municipal and private cemeteries. “These are places of community history and should be maintained and taken care of. Don’t put it on the back burner. But a lot do because of finances. They view cemeteries as necessary evils or they put them into the parks and rec [department]. It goes on and on and on.”

Cemeteries in Maine are old. About 8,000 of the estimated 9,000 cemeteries in Maine are older than 1880, according to Roland Jordan, a cemetery buff from Auburn, who serves as treasurer of the Maine Old Cemetery Association. No one knows the number of municipal cemeteries because the definition varies, he says. It may include cemeteries owned by the town and still open for burials. It may include inactive cemeteries that the town maintains. It may also include orphaned cemeteries that have become municipal responsibilities by default because associations disappeared or families cannot be found.

Vandalism, grubs, dogs, equipment

Mowing some lawns… how difficult can cemetery maintenance be anyway, you ask. Actually, it’s more involved than many people assume, mainly because people’s feelings about cemeteries run deep and there are various constituencies involved. For practical help, there are two association dedicated to the care of cemeteries. The Maine Cemetery Association (http://www.mainecemeteryassociation.org) is a professional organization and trade group with about 66 members. The Maine Old Cemetery Association (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~memoca/moca.htm) is more of a research and self-help group dedicated to the “preservation of Maine’s neglected cemeteries.” Its membership includes cemetery buffs, geneaologists, and owners of family burial plots and has about 850 members. The organization is currently recording every inscription in every cemetery and has so produced volumes for York County and Kennebec County. Both are clearinghouses of practical advice, such as where to find the proper epoxy for repairing broken stones, and how to clean accumulated lichen off stones (gentle hand washing is preferred over a power washer).

Vandalism continues to be an expensive, intermittent problem. Many cemeteries combat the problem by encouraging visitors – whether school children doing history projects or recreation-minded citizens looking for fresh air, said Burrill. “If you get more use, vandalism tends to be less,” he said. “Stay on top of it. A lot of people think it’s not a big deal if kids go in and topple 20 stones. But when it costs $800 to $1,000 to repair a stone, it is a big deal.”

A grown bane of many cemeteries is grubs – chiefly the larvae of European chafer and Japanese beetle. These pinky-sized critters feed on the roots of turf, turning lawns into brown dead zones and attracting predators like crows and skunks, which make matters worse by digging holes to get to the grubs.

“It’s awful... All you can do is reseed and hope” said Joe Dumais, superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery in Portland. One new section of the cemetery has been ravaged by grubs so continuously that “we’ve never been able to establish grass.” Dumais said he believes climate change is contributing to a migration of the grubs northward. “It’s gotten worse. Before, it was just the Japanese beetle, now with the shorter winter and warmer climate, the European chafer has come in. People in Massachusetts began telling us three or four years ago to get ready. It’s awful.”

Dumais said biological controls like milky spore can’t survive in Maine’s climate and nemotodes are prohibitively expensive in large-scale applications. “No matter what anyone tells you, there is no biological control,” said Dumais. There’s a growing likelihood that the grub problem is going to make Dumas unpopular with someone. He’s under pressure from cemetery plot owners to keep the lawn looking nice, but he’s under pressure from environmentally conscious folks not to use pesticides. “It’s a tough dilemma, we’ve made no decision yet,” he said.

Dogs pose another dilemma. Dog walkers love cemeteries, but policing dog poop disposal takes constant effort on the part of cemetery managers. Dogs are banned from many cemeteries. Evergreen Cemetery allows dogs, but enforces rules on their owners. “Dogs must stay on the walk, be on a leash at all times, and their owners must clean up after them. It’s a real challenge, but we’re here all the time and can manage it. We can make it work,” said Dumais.

Cemeteries tends to be hard on mowing equipment – all that backing and turning and riding on uneven slopes. Surprisingly, there is no lawnmower specifically designed for cemeteries, says Chris Stilkey, a Freeport landscaper who specializes in cemetery care. His company manages 16 cemeteries in the suburbs north of Portland – a dozen of which are town-owned. His company handles monument installations, lot sales, maintenance and superintendent services.

Stilkey buys standard mowers but before putting them into use, he modifies the mower decks making them easier to raise and lower and installs deflection pieces so the mower doesn’t damage a stone bumping against it. “Our warrantees are voided the day we buy the equipment,” Stilkey says.

Just as cemeteries are hard on equipment, equipment can be hard on cemeteries. Stones are easily scratched by careless landscapers operating unmodified equipment, says Stilkey, who has seen his share of damage. Stilkey says he holds his employees personally responsible for any scratched stone. Stilkey is full of stories of landscapers who through nothing more than carelessness “banged up or knocked over more stones than we’ve fixed.”


The biggest challenge in cemetery maintenance is financing. The best-run cemeteries have endowments that steadily grow through “perpetual care” assessments on the sale of plots. But unless those endowments were adequately capitalized and carefully managed, they often fail to generate sufficient revenue.

The Rule of Thumb for determining the adequacy of an endowment is whether it can support the future care of the entire cemetery. “If you stopped selling lots today, do you have enough to take care of everything now and forever? That’s the whole key,” said Burrill at Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, a 35-acre cemetery with 100 acres remaining for expansion. Mount Hope recently increased from 30 to 50 percent – the percentage of plot sale revenue that goes into its perpetual care endowment.

Most towns struggle with inadequate endowments or no endowments and rely on taxpayers to make up the difference. It’s not uncommon for a community to have a single active cemetery where lot sales generate new income and several old cemeteries closed to burial – and therefore generating no new revenue to support maintenance.

North Yarmouth, for example, has three town-owned cemeteries, only one of which is fully covered by a perpetual care endowment. As Debbie Allen Grover, the North Yarmouth office manager, points out: the town’s maintenance responsibilities include all cemetery plots, not just the adequately financed ones. “You can’t just mow the lawn in half the cemetery that’s in perpetual care,” explains Grover. Sales of burial plots is the foundation of healthy finances, says MCA’s Burrill: “If you can’t sell lots and generate revenue, what have you got? You’ve got nothing.”

Compounding the situation for municipalities is pressure to take responsibility for abandoned private cemeteries. The pattern of neglect usually begins with a family moving away or an association disbanding or disappearing. (Sometimes, but not always before disbanding, an association turns over authority and endowments to the community.) If maintenance is neglected, sooner or later, there’s a hue and cry about the sorry condition of the cemetery and someone ought to do something about it. This can become a no-win situation for a town. The town may not be able to afford to accept this new responsibility, but also cannot easily refuse because towns are required by law to take care of veterans graves, which are found in nearly every cemetery. Since towns are already taking care of veteran’s graves they can often be persuaded to assumed responsibility for more, explains Joe Donavic, who serves on the cemetery commission in the Town of Durham, north of Portland.

“By law, if there’s a veterans grave we have to keep that grave maintained, have a flag you don’t just do the one [veteran’s grave], you do them all,” he said.

Durham has informally inherited the maintenance of 13 private cemeteries, concentrating its efforts on the most visible cemeteries on the major routes in town, he said. The town is also researching the legalities of whether the town can sell a lot in a formerly private cemetery. This is prompted by a citizen’s request to purchase a burial plot. In this case, Durham officials are recommending that the family making the request double efforts to locate the original cemetery association before asking the town to sell a lot, a request that might require a town meeting decision, Donavic said.

Reopening an old cemetery for burial might seem like a considerate thing to do, but extreme care must be taken in identifying the unused parts of a cemetery. Maps aren’t always available or accurate. “That’s my worst nightmare: we sell a lot to someone and they start digging and find remains. What a nightmare that would be,” said Donavic. He said it’s not easy to determine the unused parts of a cemetery even with a probe. Sonar devices are available, but they are “very expensive,” he said.

An extreme example of cemetery abandonment occurred in Phippsburg, a town of 2,100 residents on the Kennebec River south of Bath. The town is home to three town-owned cemeteries and 100 private ones, many of which have been neglected so long that they’re grown up in brush and trees. Bringing an abandoned cemetery back to decent shape is labor intensive - cutting brush and repairing stones. (Repairing stones often means first finding them by means of probes and digging them up because a fallen stone is quickly obliterated by leaves and eventually layers of humus.).

“Trees are the worst enemy of old cemeteries,” said Jessie Sutfin, a cemetery buff in Phippsburg. “The leaves come down and when stones fall down, they cover them up. Sometimes you have to poke down in earth four to six inches underground to find them.

“An effort to reclaim these historic sites and was launched by elementary school teacher Merry Chapin, who got her students involved in learning about town history while doing some restoration work. The rejuvenation campaign was taken over by several families and expanded. Their effort have even been supplemented by labor from furloughed jail prisoners. The town has rejected calls for it to assume more direct responsibility. “

The town is wonderfully thrilled to see it done, but they’ve got no money for it,” said Sutfin, one of the prime organizers. To date, volunteers have reclaimed about 40 cemeteries by removing brush and repairing broken or fallen down stones. “It’s a lot of fun, if that kind of thing interests you,” said Sutfin. But she worries that the effort is slowing down. Sutfin said she has no advice on how to encourage volunteerism. Older folks seem to be the most interested and many of them do not have the energy and strength for cutting brush, she said.

In spite of the tight finances, some very small towns manage their cemeteries very well.

The town of Detroit – a community of 800 souls west of Bangor – gets raves from Cheryl Patten, president of the Maine Old Cemetery Association, who has visited Detroit’s cemeteries while conducting field work for the inscription project. “Absolutely, beautiful, marvelous,” she said. “Every cemetery is well kept. They have a number of old stones and they seem to making an effort to make repairs.”

Detroit appropriates about $6,500 in tax dollars each year to support its three town-owned cemeteries, according to Selectman Joe Cianchette. Town Meeting voters just recently agreed to set aside an additional four acres of town land for a new cemetery when the others get filled up.

Selectman Cianchette says he’s pleased that people notice the fine condition of the town’s cemeteries. He attributes it to the care taken by contractor David Hart, the unstinting support of Town Meeting voters (“we pay pretty good”) and townspeople’s abiding respect for their own history. “There are a lot of old people here, including me,” said Cianchette. “We’re historically minded too... There’s never a question [raising funds], no problem, they’ll raise the money, We’ve never had a problem.”

Quality of Place

Cemeteries are not just burdens to be borne. They are also appreciating assets.

They embody “quality of place,” that authentic character that is a magnet for residential and commercial growth in a mobile economy. Larger cemeteries are capitalizing on this trend and advertising themselves as attractions. Laurel Hill Cemetery in Saco plants 14,000 daffodil bulbs each year and in early May becomes a must-see place for locals and tourists alike. Smaller cemeteries are also getting into the act. Walnut Hill Cemetery in Yarmouth, the largest of three town-owned cemeteries is open to walkers 24/7. It’s safe and you don’t have to deal with traffic,” said Debbie Grover. “It probably helps to deter vandalism.”

The leader in the public use of cemeteries is Evergreen Cemetery in Portland, the largest cemetery north of Boston and an active place year round. The cemetery draws picnickers, dog walkers, cross-country skiers, birders, and history buffs. The cemetery paths are publicized by Portland Trails, which publishes maps and maintains a network of 30 miles of urban trails. During warbler migration in early May, the Maine Audubon Society leads guided walks in the cemetery. The cemetery is now taking recreation to new level with development of trails throughout its 100 acres of woodlands. The city has already hired a forester who has been amazed at the number of large old trees in the woods.

“Cemeteries used to be much more places for picnics and social events. We’re going back to them as active places,” said superintendent Dumas. “We encourage it, we don’t let people have big parties, but to enjoy a beautiful place, get away for a walk, it’s a great place.”

Lee Burnett is a freelance writer from Sanford.