Questions on Wareham cemetery rules raised at public hearing

Mar 7, 2018

Residents will be asked to approve updated rules for Wareham’s three municipal cemeteries at the April Town Meeting. On Wednesday, 10 residents attended a hearing on the proposed regulations, which are needed to bring the town in compliance with state guidelines. The current regulations have remained unchanged since 1986.

Cemetery Commissioners originally wanted the changes accepted at October’s Town Meeting. However, voters urged commissioners to review the rules after airing concerns on maintenance issues, burial regulations and the town administrator’s role in operations. In Wareham, there are four cemeteries, three – Agawam, Centre and Long Neck Cemeteries – are operated by the town. The fourth is run by St. Patrick’s Church.

Kathy Bird, the commission’s chair, said her board addressed voters' concerns.

“We heard the people’s opinion at the last hearings and at the fall Town Meeting,” said Bird. “We have revised this document and believe it will meet with everyone’s approval.”

In June 2017, the commissioners hired Tom Daly, owner of CHS Consulting Group, to review the town’s current practices. Commissioners noted Daly has decades of experience overseeing cemetery operations and has consulted with many cities and towns on cemetery rules.

Sticking points for voters at the fall Town Meeting included a change that granted the town administrator more authority over cemetery operations. That language has been removed, leaving control with the Cemetery Commission.

A residency requirement was added. Currently, anyone who purchases a plot in a town cemetery may be buried there. Bird said commissioners added language that says those who wish to be buried in town must be residents for at least six months prior to burial, a recommendation from the state.

The rule change will not affect those who have already purchased grave sites. Bird noted commissioners will take into consideration cases of people who were longtime residents, but moved away later in life.

Bird said that requirement was added in part because town cemeteries are running out of space. Long Neck Cemetery is full and there are roughly 70 plots left in Centre Cemetery and 70 left in Agawam Cemetery, said Bird.

Residents asked for clarification on how the new rules, if adopted, would change longstanding traditions, such as the placement of flags on veterans’ graves.

Bob White, a member of the Wareham Veterans Council, said American flags are placed on graves before Memorial Day and left up until just past Veterans Day. He asked if that would still be allowed.

“I want to make sure that these rules don’t conflict with a tradition in this community,” said White.

Daly said the decision would be left up to the Cemetery Commissioners under the draft regulations. He said most cemeteries follow flag etiquette guidelines recommended by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Those rules call for flags to be illuminated at night, not touch the ground and be removed before they become worn or faded. Usually, flags placed in cemeteries are removed two days after the observed holiday has passed.

A lack of running water, an issue raised at the previous Town Meeting, was brought up again. Marjory Rakoski, who owns eight plots, asked why no water, aside from that in rain barrels, is available.

“Where does our money go for perpetual care if it doesn’t pay for our water?” asked Rakoski. “We want water.”

Perpetual care refers to the one-time $200 fee residents pay that funds cemetery maintenance. Daly said the question of water is one for the Municipal Maintenance Department, which maintains the cemeteries.

Daly said it was his understanding that water isn’t available due to budget constraints. Also, the issue of water was outside the scope of the hearing, which was focused on addressing the new regulations.

Judy Whiteside, a former Cemetery Commissioner, praised the board’s efforts.

“I have to say congratulations to the Cemetery Commissioners who have worked an enormous number of hours to straighten out what was a mess,” said Whiteside. “I think this is a huge step in the right direction.”

Town Meeting is scheduled for April 23 at 7 p.m. in Wareham High School. All registered voters may participate.