(from Maine Townsman, May 2002)
by Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

Cemeteries are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about municipal services, but public cemeteries are present in almost every Maine community, and town responsibility for graveyards, past and present, has recently been reinforced in state statutes.

Care of cemeteries ranges from routine mowing and weeding to efforts to clean and restore stones – and to reclaim the many historic graveyards scattered throughout Maine. These often involve significant civic and volunteer efforts.

The latter have been encouraged and led by members of the Maine Old Cemetery Association ( ), which was founded in 1968 by Dr. Hilda Fife of Kittery, who was concerned about encroachments on an old graveyard near her home in Kittery. Until her death in 1990, she guided the group in its mission “to prevent neglect and vandalism.” As it gradually acquired a statewide focus, the 850-member association undertook ambitious historical and genealogical projects, including collecting thousands of inscriptions. It has also begun the publication of “county books,” and so far has produced four volumes for York County and, more recently, a CD format for records from Kennebec County.

In a 1984 Maine Townsman assessment of the condition of municipal cemeteries, MOCA spokesmen presented a bleak view, saying that “cemeteries do not have a sufficiently high priority on most municipal agendas, and that in many communities the cemeteries are in dreadful condition.”

These views were given even blunter emphasis in an editorial in the now-defunct Portland Evening Express, which said of the city’s Eastern Cemetery, a National Historic Site, “it remains one of Portland’s most ill-treated and battered landmarks.”

Things have improved in the two decades since then, in the view of Roland Jordan of Auburn, immediate past president of MOCA, and a life-long cemetery buff. “Some towns are doing a super job,” he said, but “there are still towns that don’t want to recognize their responsibilities.”

Jordan mentioned recent efforts in Lewiston and Auburn to restore those cities’ older cemeteries, and an ambitious historical project that was completed not long ago in Cushing. In Richmond, Town Manager Jay Robbins, who is also the town historian and a MOCA member, is leading an effort to identify, catalogue and restore the town’s many old cemeteries.

Brunswick is taking the relatively unusual step of including cemeteries in the open space component of its new comprehensive plan, including an inventory of cemetery space and how long each one can be expected to be used. In the process, the comprehensive plan committee identified previously unmapped graveyards, bringing the number of known public cemeteries in town from 18 to 28.

Jordan said MOCA continues to identify old cemeteries. There are now more than 5,000 recorded statewide – with hundreds, perhaps thousands still unaccounted for.


Vandalism, while still a problem, may have diminished in recent years. The recent desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Portland with anti-Semitic slogans brought a wave of concern statewide, and police quickly tracked down the alleged culprit, saying that solving this apparent hate crime was a high priority. Even rarer was a case in Kennebec County, where several men were convicted of grave robbing after they took bones and skulls from an old cemetery vault, evidently as souvenirs.

None of the town managers interviewed could remember incidents anywhere near as serious as these. Toppling of gravestones is perhaps the most common kind of vandalism, followed by spray painting, often without any actual writing. As many stones may fall simply because of the effects of age and weather.

If the situation has improved, Roland Jordan said, it may be because of the success of educational efforts with young people. “Vermont has done particularly well here, in teaching students the connection of these cemeteries to the community,” he said. “This is the history of the town – the people who the streets are named for are there, and families that still exist begin back then. People respect things more when they feel connected to them.”

Because of lighter development pressures in Maine, it’s relatively rare that cemeteries are moved, though they sometimes end up juxtaposed with large developments – most people have noticed the small Revolutionary War-era graveyard along the Maine Turnpike in Kennebunk. In Augusta, a cemetery along the Townsend Road is now surrounded by the Marketplace at Augusta mall.

But in the Dunstan area of Scarborough, developers are trying to enhance access to existing cemeteries. John and Elliott Chamberlain plan to build a “Great American Neighborhood” subdivision, which includes ball fields and shops and encourages walking. The Dunstan cemetery along Route 1 would be incorporated into a trail system via a disused road. The development would also provide access to another graveyard now tucked away behind neighboring developments. Though small in size, it’s the final resting place of one of the town’s most distinguished citizens – the father of William King, Maine’s first governor.


MMA’s fiscal survey shows that cemeteries are a quite modest element in most municipal budgets. In communities smaller than 1,000 people, annual spending averages just $1,859, rising gradually with size. Towns of 3,500-4,999 pop. average $12,000, while those 10,000-19,999 pop. show a significant jump, to $95,793 average annual spending. Municipalities above 20,000 actually reported lower average spending ($70,397) though this population category represents a much smaller sample. Overall, cemeteries appear to account for just two percent of public works budgets. The survey may underestimate actual expenditures, however. Most town managers interviewed for this story reported spending around two percent of the entire municipal budget.

Winthrop (pop. 6,050) is perhaps typical. Town Manager Cornell Knight said that about $50,000 is budgeted for cemeteries from a municipal budget of $3.6 million. About $20,000 is taken in from sale of burial plots and trust funds; the rest comes from property taxes. Winthrop has five town cemeteries and all are still in use, although most burials take place in two of them. The oldest active cemeteries date back to the 1790s, not long after the town’s settlement.

In Maine’s severe climate, active maintenance takes place from April through early November. A sexton and a crew of three work throughout that period. Spring is perhaps the busiest season, as graves are dug for interments for those who died over the winter.

Though there is enough space to accommodate current demand, Knight estimates that in five to 10 years the town may have sold all the plots in the cemetery on Narrows Pond Road and may need to acquire more land. In most relatively rural towns, acquiring land for cemeteries is generally not too difficult.

Terry St. Peter, city manager in Belfast, has dealt with a different system in each of the cities where he’s been manager. In Caribou, there are no municipal cemeteries; churches and private associations are the owners and provide the maintenance. In Augusta, the city maintains one of the largest and most visible cemeteries in Maine, occupying the hilltop that also accommodates Camp Keyes and the Augusta State Airport.

In Belfast, the $4 million municipal budget includes $82,000 for cemeteries, with about $50,000 in related revenue. There’s a seasonal crew of three, and the city makes efficient use of the superintendent, who digs graves, repairs stones and directs maintenance in summer, drives a snowplow in winter, and also serves as animal control officer.

Belfast also has an example of an old cemetery, just off Route 1, recently reclaimed to comply with state law regarding the maintenance and repair of graves for wartime veterans. “There are Revolutionary War soldiers there,” St. Peter said, “but at some point public access was lost, and there were many stones that were broken and buried.” Working with the superintendent, a committee came up with an agreement for town maintenance and access for its equipment. Neighboring landowners agreed to allow foot access for the public as well.

Norway is a town where a need for cemetery expansion led to a restoration effort as well. Town Manager David Holt can remember pitching in to dig a grave when he had a similar post in Princeton. In Norway, though, most townspeople had long used the Paris cemetery on Route 26, one of the largest in the area, which is managed by a private association. Concerns about the future prompted a local effort to raise $80,000 to purchase a site on Watson Road overlooking Hobbs Pond, and another $100,000 was spent to develop it. Though the Paris cemetery, “still has some room, we were a little concerned about the years ahead,” Holt said. “And some folks wanted to be buried here in Norway.” The new cemetery, he said, “should take care of things for 100 years.”

The fundraising for the Lakeview Cemetery, as it’s known, included money for care, and the town budget requires only an additional $10,000 for maintenance. Completion of Lakeview also led to a look at another dozen smaller town cemeteries, many of them neglected. The oldest graves are from 1797, not long after the town’s settlement in 1786. Holt would like to see an additional $10,000 allocated, over time, to restore the older burial grounds.

The town manager said Norway aims to make its cemeteries as self-sufficient as possible. Single gravesites cost $300, or $200 for a cremation. He credits Rowena Farmer, a former selectperson who’s also spearheaded fundraising for the library, with calling attention to the historical value of the cemeteries. In many communities, that’s just how these efforts start.


In Richmond, the volunteer is also the town manager. Jay Robbins, whose ancestors are from Fryeburg, Sweden and Lovell, has been an amateur historian from his days as a Bowdoin College undergraduate, and he was impressed, when visiting Sweden, “to see how immaculate the cemeteries were, how well-preserved.”

There had been a flurry of activity in Richmond around the time of its bicentennial nearly 25 years ago, but not much since then. “These things tend to be cyclical,” Robbins said. “People begin to see there’s a need again, and start talking.”

Local veterans groups such as the American Legion also played a major role in finding and marking veterans’ graves. In addition to two large cemeteries traditionally maintained by the town, there are at least 31 more that have been uncovered – though in some cases, these may be a single fieldstone burial back in the woods. “At one time, the whole area between Route 24 and the river, north of the village to the Gardiner line, was settled,” Robbins said. Now, it’s heavily wooded; at least six small graveyards have been identified there.

Last year, some 19 volunteers – including several out-of-towners with Richmond ancestors – answered Robbins’ call, and went to work on the Patriots Cemetery on Route 201, just north of Route 197. After they cut deadfalls, collected brush and found stones covered over by vegetation, a town crew went back to finish the job. The crews later went to work on the Plummer Cemetery, which was far back in the woods. The effort also benefited from a 10-member crew of the Maritimes & Northeast gas pipeline, who volunteered for a community service day. With all the donated labor, the town’s cost were relatively modest. It spent $2,200 to have some 50 stones cleaned and reset.  Robbins hopes to continue the effort until all of the old graveyards have been brought back.

In addition to the on-site work, townspeople are recording inscriptions, making maps of the cemeteries, and establishing a photo record and computer database that will be useful far into the future. Not long ago, he used the new system to help a descendant of an Eastern European immigrant find a grave. The “Russians” of Richmond – some of whom were from elsewhere in the region – left relatively few signs of themselves, but the Orthodox crosses in the graveyards, and portraits of the deceased worked into the markers, are unmistakable evidence. “There’s a lot of interest,” Robbins said. “We must get an inquiry at least once every two weeks.”

In the Plummer cemetery, a group of six graves, covered in brush with only one stone left standing, is now completely restored. “The before and after photographs are dramatic,” he said. “The result are just amazing. It’s becoming a big source of community pride.” The first Saturday in May has now become “cemetery day,” something Robbins hopes Richmond will make permanent.


And how has Portland fared, where its most historic graveyard was considered “ill-treated and battered”? Much better, says the current cemetery superintendent, Mike Murray. The persistent vandalism and neglect that once plagued the cemeteries have been dealt with in two ways. First, maintenance with a six-person permanent crew, and eight seasonal workers, takes place throughout the year, not just the previous once-a-year fix-up in May. And the city has opted for more security, something about which Murray has mixed feelings. The Eastern Cemetery is now gated and locked, with access by appointment only. The Evergreen Cemetery, the largest and most active, is open during the day, but gated after 6:30 p.m.

A controversy of a different sort centered on the Western Cemetery, which most found to be in worse shape than the Eastern Cemetery, at least after restoration efforts there. Dog owners had been using the cemetery to let their pets off the leash, and claimed to be helping to counter the neglect. But others found the dog’s leavings disrespectful, and last year the city council declared the cemetery off-limits to dogs, something Murray said was the right thing to do. Dogs are welcome in a nearby fenced-in area of city-owned land, and dogs on leashes are allowed in Evergreen and the second active cemetery, Forest City.

Maine’s largest city is able to run a tight ship where its cemeteries are concerned. Though the municipal budget is $139 million, cemeteries spend $454,000 and nearly all of that amount is covered by fees, bringing in $432,000. There’s also help from the Friends of Evergreen Cemetery, and a similar group is now being formed for the Western Cemetery.

Evergreen has been described as the “largest public burial ground north of Boston,” and it may still be, but it is not as large as the 370 acres once listed. GIS mapping puts the figure closer to 240 acres, of which 150 acres have been developed. So there’s no space crunch in Portland, either. Though the 100-acre Forest City Cemetery may sell the rest of its lots within 20-30 years, Evergreen, which has 200 burials a year, should be adequate well into the future.  “Long past my lifetime, that’s for sure,” said Murray.

Cheryl Patten of Smithfield, current president of the Maine Old Cemetery Association, acknowledges the improvements many towns are making, but says there’s still a long way to go. Towns that are reluctant to take up the state mandate for care may believe, “that if they work on one cemetery, they open Pandora’s box.”

It doesn’t need to be that way, though, she said. Taking on one cemetery a year, perhaps, is not expensive, and just the effort of doing it generates a lot of citizen interest. “This is something people are always happy the town is doing,” she said. “Whenever it comes up at town meeting, people are overwhelmingly favorable.”

New private associations are being formed, in some cases, to carry on the work, and in some parts of the state, such as the western mountains, standards are already pretty high, Patten said.

“I really feel strongly that towns have an obligation to do something before more cemeteries are lost,” she said. “It’s a part of being respectful toward our past. It’s really a part of ourselves.”