(from Maine Townsman, May 2002)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor

On the surface, legislative changes to 30-A M.R.S.A., section 2901, enacted in 2000 by the 119th State Legislature, appeared minor. This state law directs municipal officers to annually decorate veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.  The legislation enacted two years ago (LD 873), which amended section 2901, was supposed to merely clarify existing law regarding the maintenance of veterans’ gravesites.

Changes to state law brought on by LD 873 were more far-reaching than most legislators thought, although MMA staff explicitly told legislators that the bill was an unfunded mandate and several municipal officials expressed their concerns about the financial impact of the bill.

LD 873 repealed a subsection of 2901 that gave municipal officers the alternative of erecting a single flagpole to honor war dead as opposed to placing individual flags in holders on each veteran’s grave.

For communities where cemetery management and maintenance had become somewhat of a rote municipal service, this small change was a wake-up call to get more serious about cemetery management and recordkeeping.

Many communities had taken advantage of the “flagpole” alternative.  By using this alternative approach to honoring veterans, the municipality did not have to know precisely where all veterans are buried.  Changes to 30-A M.R.S.A., section 2901, which became effective August 11, 2000, had municipal officials in several communities scrambling to make their cemetery maintenance and recordkeeping compliant with state law before Memorial Day 2001.

One such community was Lewiston.

The city has 15 cemeteries with only four still active.  The four active cemeteries are managed by private groups, two of which are church affiliated.  Maintenance of the other 11 (inactive) cemeteries is the responsibility of the city.  Most of them started out as privately owned and operated cemeteries, but for various reasons were turned over to the city for maintenance and upkeep.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo says city officials were caught off guard by the changes brought on by LD 873.  Instead of individually decorating veterans’ graves, the city had been using the flagpole alternative.  Records of where veterans were buried, for all practical purposes, did not exist.  And, the city didn’t even have money budgeted in the first year that the law took effect to purchase flags.

Responsibility for getting the city up to speed with the new law changes fell into the lap of the city clerk’s office.  The first order of business was to determine how many veterans were buried in Lewiston, so that flags could be ordered.  Through some rough calculations, the city projected that one-third of all burials in each cemetery were veterans.  After finding some available funds in the city budget, the city clerk’s office ordered over 5,000 flags at a cost of  $3,780.

The next step in the process was to see that the flags were actually placed on  veterans’ graves.  Prior to last year’s Memorial Day, city officials organized a group of volunteers to walk through each cemetery.  The volunteers read the inscriptions on each headstone to see if the buried person was identified as a veteran and flags were placed accordingly.

The volunteer effort to find veterans’ graves was very successful and the city was able to make a good faith effort to comply with the law changes in the first year they took effect.  The volunteers, however, did not have time to record where each veteran was buried.

Shortly after the initial Memorial Day decorating, a local retired person volunteered to help the city build a data base and provide computerized maps showing where veterans are buried in the city’s 15 cemeteries.

Another action taken by city officials after the mad rush to comply with the law changes in their first year was to connect with churches and veterans’ groups encouraging more people to volunteer their time in the city’s effort to improve its cemetery management.

In addition to displaying flags on veterans’ graves, municipalities also have responsibility for the maintenance and repair of wartime veterans’ gravesites.  13 M.R.S.A., section 1101 requires that municipalities “keep in good condition and repair, all graves, headstones, monuments or markers” designating the burial place of wartime veterans, including those from the Revolutionary War, and “keep the grass suitably cut and trimmed from May 1st to September 30th of each year.”

This municipal responsibility applies to all public cemeteries and private cemeteries established after 1880.  The practical implementation of this statutory requirement has resulted in many communities assuming the maintenance and management of their local cemeteries.

Lewiston, which has already assumed maintenance of 11 inactive cemeteries, will probably be taking over two of the remaining (active) cemeteries within the next 3-5 years, according to Montejo.  In addition to the ultimate responsibility municipalities have for maintaining the graves of wartime veterans, Montejo believes that another reason why municipalities are taking over private (non-profit) cemeteries is because the groups that run these cemeteries are having a difficult time attracting volunteers to serve on their boards.