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Dwindling finances haunt cemetery

Green River trustees look for right solution

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Green River Cemetery in Greenfield

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Green River Cemetery in Greenfield

  • Recorder/Paul Franz Green River Cemetery in Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz Green River Cemetery in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Green River Cemetery in Greenfield
  • Recorder/Paul Franz Green River Cemetery in Greenfield.

GREENFIELD — When 3,000 cubic yards of mud came sliding down the hill onto Meridian Street from an adjacent Green River Cemetery bluff after heavy rains in 2011, sinking vehicles in the mud and burying backyards, the damage extended far beyond the inundated properties.

The overseers of the privately owned, 162-year-old cemetery had already been reeling from a 2006 landslide that left some plots on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river, as well as from another slide in 2007 that required moving the exhumed remains into new containers, with vaults and gravestones moved to new cemetery locations.

All of these graveyard woes came in the midst of a national financial meltdown that caused widespread losses for the endowments among many nonprofit organizations, and the end result is that Green River Cemetery, which depends on that endowment for ongoing maintenance and repairs, is facing a deepening hole.

“It’s huge,” said Ann Hamilton, a member of the board of trustees, which has been grappling with how to continue to pay what she says is close to $40,000 in annual expenses when its endowment of roughly $500,000 is down by about $300,000 because of repairs to the cemetery and settlements to abutters after the 2011 slide. She’s referring to the effects of the slide, which she likens to the Grand Canyon. But she might as well be referring to the problem — which some other private cemeteries face as well — of providing for “perpetual care” for grave sites when interest payments have dried up and the sale of sites has also slowed.

“How do you deal with having more expenses than income, when we sell a few sites a year at $500,” Hamilton asks. “There’s always tree maintenance, plowing and mowing. Everybody assumes that when you put a stone up, the property will be cared for.”

That wasn’t always the way it was, said fellow board member William Allen, who joined the board when he returned to Greenfield in 1965 to become town public works superintendent.

In the old days, when people died, they left a bequest to the cemetery,” Allen says. “I know my family always has. That’s how they built the endowment up. Today, all people want to do is buy a grave, then hope and pray it’s going to be maintained.”

Whereas a nominal voluntary “perpetual care” surcharge used to help ensure upkeep, Allen said, some families didn’t choose to provide for that kind of maintenance, “so we had a cemetery that looked like a hay field for some lots.” Trustees at some point decided to combine the perpetual care and endowment earnings and maintain the entire property uniformly.

In Greenfield, which unlike many towns doesn’t have a history of municipally run cemeteries, Green River Cemetery had an illustrious past, with a stone cottage that used to be home to a superintendent who had a crew of nearly half a dozen caretakers, Allen said. There was even a greenhouse where the crew raised plants for the grounds. And there’s also the stone Isabella Russell Memorial Chapel, built in 1921, with seating for 80 and a basement storage vault for 24 caskets.

“That gives you an idea of how well off some of these cemeteries were,” said Allen. Gradually, as costs rose, the cemetery cut back on its crew and in the 1990s turned to Snow and Sons to contract for maintenance, along with preparation of grave sites, including sales and record-keeping.

The cemetery, built in 1851 as the town’s largest, on a 96-acre tract, fell on hard times during the Great Depression, with a 1941 public campaign by its trustees to shore up “shrinking trust fund incomes and the need for a uniform development where perpetual care is lacking,” according to a Greenfield Recorder-Gazette article from the time. Eventually, some of the undeveloped cemetery property was sold off, and today it totals 50 to 60 acres, Allen said.

But Allen, who also chairs the trustees of the High Street Cemetery at Silver Street, said that with an endowment of about $150,000 for a much smaller area, that older burial ground is in good shape financially. Otherwise, he said, “They’ve all got financial woes. Federal Street (Cemetery) is about to go belly up. They’re just not getting enough income from their endowments and from their burials to maintain them.”

In the case of Green River Cemetery, where financial problems go back at least four years or so, the board is awaiting word on a $75,000 grant application to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to pay for repairs after the 2011 washout.

Trustees are looking at a variety of options, including asking family members with plots to make contributions, selling off part of the property or even asking the town to take over maintenance.

“We’d rather not do that,” said Allen. “The last thing we want to do is dump it on the town.”

Peter Miller, who chairs the Federal Street Cemetery’s board, said he’s already told town officials the town will have to take over that three- to four-acre property.

“Eventually they’ll have to take it over, because we’re running out of money,” said Miller, explaining that with an endowment of less than $10,000, the cemetery’s overseers face annual expenses of about $4,500. “We’re restricted in what we can invest.”

Already the town has had to take on the Country Farms Cemetery off Barton Road and Log Plain Cemetery on Bernardston Road, Miller said.

Allen said some of the smaller graveyards, in the town’s Meadows area, are looked after by members of some of the predominant families buried there, just as some smaller graveyards in neighboring towns are taken care of by volunteers.

Hamilton said Green River’s trustees are even looking at whether to sell off part of its property.

“We’ve got quite a bit of land, and more and more people being cremated,” Hamilton said. “That could make up the $200,000 or $300,000, if there were two or three house lots there. But not everybody wants to live near a cemetery. And it’s hard to think of selling it, because your land’s your asset.”

Other options are to rent out the superintendent’s cottage to bring in income and provide added security, she said.

One way or another, Allen added, “The handwriting’s on the wall.”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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