Cemetery clean-up causes controversy, grief

May 22, 2019

Who are they to tell us how to grieve?

That’s a question that many in Wareham have been asking as the town cemeteries’ rules, passed at the Spring 2018 Town Meeting, are being fully enforced and many are being told to dismantle gravesites.

Municipal maintenance workers began work at the Center Cemetery and have begun to dismantle flower beds and remove planted bushes and objects left at gravesites — some of which families have been maintaining in the same way for decades.

In the midst of confusion over what is allowed at the town’s three cemeteries (Agawam, Centre, and Long Neck, located in Onset), some families are removing whatever has been left at the graves to protect the items, while others are leaving gravesites untouched in defiance of the rules.

According to cemetery rules, only those with a vertical headstone are allowed to have a planting or decoration bed, which must extend no more than 12 inches in front of the stone and be no wider than the stone itself. Nothing in the bed can be taller than the stone.

Those with no stone or only a flat stone are not allowed to leave anything at the cemetery.

No fencing, edging, or mulch is allowed. The managers of the cemetery have the authority to remove anything they deem to be “offensive, improper, or detrimental to the general appearance and safety of the cemetery.”

“I understand that some people are upset, but we are trying to make the cemeteries look appropriate, look clean and orderly,” said Cemetery Commission member Jack Silva. “It’s not something that we are looking to punish anyone.”

Silva emphasized that those with plots in the cemeteries do not, in fact, own the land, but just have a license to bury someone there.

Silva said that maintenance crews have been photographing each grave before and after they clean it.

“They’ve tried to be very gentle with respect to everything that they have done,” Silva said. “I have to commend them for that.”

According to municipal maintenance, all items that have been removed from gravesites are being categorized and stored. People can make appointments with Municipal Maintenance to pick up these items by calling 508-295-5300.

Shannon Dixon, whose daughter Hailey died of cancer when she was eight years old, said that while she understands that some rules are necessary, it feels like the town is placing restrictions on how people can express their grief.

Michelle Smith, whose daughter, Shannon, is buried in Centre Cemetery, was unable to afford a headstone when her daughter died unexpectedly in childhood. For thirty years, she has maintained the grave with a small rosebush and two very small trees which she maintains and replants every few years to keep them from growing too large.

“Every holiday I decorate her stone,” Smith said. “And then when the holiday passes, I take them off. I never leave anything there for someone else to clean up. I never leave a mess.”

She and her husband salvaged what they could of the gravesite and replanted it at their other daughter’s house, but she said it isn’t the same.

“It’s really, really hurt us,” Smith said.

Some families who could not afford any marker or who are waiting for one to be made now have loved ones buried in graves that are completely unmarked, as the plastic markers used at burials are “considered as part of grave decoration and not a permanent memorial,” and will be removed in a “timely manner,” according to the rules. According to municipal maintenance, these types of markers are only allowed for thirty days.

Rebecca Annable’s brother-in-law, Jordan Pina, died two years ago and his stone is not yet complete. Annable said that the town threw away everything from his gravesite, leaving it completely unmarked, and did not contact  the family before doing so.

Many also expressed frustration that maintenance crews were spending time dismantling gravesites when there are other issues in town that they thought were more pressing, including potholes and poor visibility at street corners.

Several said that fixing the many damaged and abandoned historical graves would do more to improve the cemetery than this project.

“Monuments are personal property and we are not responsible for repair.  However, I do not know if the cemetery commissioners are seeking to transfer funds to repair the historic monuments,” Town Administrator Derek Sullivan wrote in an email.

Changes to cemetery rules would have to be approved at Town Meeting, and could be proposed through a citizens petition.

“We wish that the rules that have been in effect had been enforced from the beginning so that it had not gotten this far,” said Sullivan. “Cemeteries are places to honor our loved ones in a dignified and respectful environment and we truly regret any pain this has caused people.”

Officials claimed that most of the feedback to the changes has been positive. Maintenance crews are continuing to work through the cemeteries.