In response to concerns about the upkeep of Shawsheen Cemetery, Town Manager Sarah Stanton and DPW Director David Manugian updated the Select Board on conditions at the cemetery at their October 13 meeting.
Residents have raised concerns about cemetery maintenance, in particular about the large patches of thin or missing grass. According to Manugian there are several factors contributing to the problem. The first is that before the burial ground was established in 1849, the original 18 acres was a sand pit. Over the years the town dumped unwanted mulch in that area, so there is little topsoil for establishing grass. Another factor is that Massachusetts is in a multi-year drought and there is no irrigation system at the cemetery.
Plans for an expansion of the cemetery are underway. The proposed Capital Budget for FY2021 included $106,812 for a feasibility study on a proposed expansion of the cemetery with one million earmarked for construction the following year. Those requests have not been presented to Annual Town Meeting. Both were postponed at the July 2020 ATM along with other capital projects due to financial uncertainties around Covid-19.
One step under consideration is to hire a consultant to evaluate the problem and make recommendations, which might include an irrigation system. Adding an irrigation system in an old burial ground may be a challenge
Margot Fleischman from the Select Board pointed out that the conditions that are causing the grass to die might continue. She said, “Should the town look for opportunities to build climate resiliency into our plans, so we don’t just recycle through this problem.” She added, “This is going to be a problem for all our grassy spaces.”
The responsibility for the cemetery was moved to Public Works in 1957, when the
Cemetery Commission was dissolved. Today DPW manages the cemeteries under the direction of the Select Board. Cemeteries are also governed under Massachusetts General Law 114, Cemeteries and Burials.
Routine maintenance by the DPW includes mowing, raking, pruning and snow removal. Public Works is not responsible for repairing monuments or memorials. There are rules governing decorations at the gravesites, which are given to each owner. They limit the types of decorations that can be placed at the gravesite and ask that seasonal decorations be removed by the end of February.
Manugian presented two options for the Select Board’s consideration.
Option 1: Continue current practice with more effort to clarify the rules and to foster better communication with residents about the rules and expectations.
Option 2: Insert in the Capital Plan an article to study the feasibility of installing and perhaps constructing an irrigation system. The projected operating costs should include maintenance of the system and the cost of water.
Stanton noted that a study of an irrigation system in the current acres might be folded into the FY2023 budget line for the study of the cemetery expansion. Margot Fleischman moved that the scope of the study for the cemetery expansion be expanded to include evaluation of conditions on the current site. The motion was approved 5-0.
The Select Board recommended that Public Works reach out to plot owners with a reminder of the rules, while understanding that grief is different for each individual and issues should be treated with compassion.
Stanton pointed out that employees of DPW take a great deal of pride in the appearance of the cemetery, noting that many grew up in Bedford and have friends and relatives buried there.