HOPKINTON — Whether deep in the woods or along busy roads, Hopkinton’s 80 historic cemeteries could use some tender loving care, and most aren’t getting any.
“I would like to see volunteers ready and able, eager to cut brush and pull up poison ivy and make them look presentable,” said Richard Prescott, president of the Hopkinton Historical Association and member of the town’s Historic District Commission. “I go up to northern New England, and you go by cemeteries and they look beautiful. We go by cemeteries here and they’re growing up to brush.”
Twelve of the cemeteries have perpetual care accounts, some established more than 100 years ago by families for the care of the graves.
The money, totaling more than $9,000, has remained in the custody of the town, which can release funds for cemetery maintenance. Two of the funds specify that the town cannot touch the principal, but the others do not place limits on spending.
The old cemetery properties belong to no one, because as part of his belief in the separation of church and state, Rhode Island’s founding father, Roger Williams, believed that everyone had the right to bury their dead according to their own beliefs and customs. The Town Council has therefore balked at allocating town funds toward projects on land it doesn’t own, such as Historic Cemetery No. 17, the Thurston burial ground. A large, rotting maple tree was threatening to fall and possibly damage many of the gravestones, and cutting it down would cost nearly $3,000. In the end, the historical association launched a successful appeal for donations to remove the tree, and a local tree service did the job at a greatly reduced price.
Town Council member Scott Bill Hirst, who is also on the Historic District Commission, told the council on Monday that he wondered who was taking care of all the other cemeteries, and if they were being maintained at all. “I do have concerns about the future of these cemeteries,” he said.
Assistant Town Clerk Lauri Arruda, who co-authored a book on Hopkinton’s old cemeteries, explained that many of them are small family graveyards, tucked far away in the woods.
“Some of them are very hard to find, extremely difficult to find,” she said.
In a few of the cemeteries, relatives of those buried there mow the grass and take care of basic maintenance, while in others, unnamed volunteers quietly get the work done.
An example of anonymous volunteer work, Arruda told the council, is Historic Cemetery No. 14 off Woodville Alton Road.
“Every once in a while we’ll go by and it’s all cleaned up. We don’t know who did it,” she said.
Prescott told councilors he wanted the Historic District Commission to oversee the cemeteries and assess their varied conditions and needs, a responsibility that has already been conferred on the commission in the town’s comprehensive plan. He also suggested trying to find living relatives of people buried in the cemeteries and tell them about the perpetual care funds.
“Somebody should be making them aware of how much is available to maintain and somebody should also be looking at the cemeteries, feet on the ground, to see if work is being done,” he said.
Council Vice President Sylvia Thompson said, “It needn’t be complex. It can be as simple as having a list, knowing that it is being done, even though you don’t know who’s doing it. The point is, it is being done....I think these funds should hopefully stay there and grow and if something comes up, like the tree, something serious, then you need to tap into the money.”
Councilor Barbara Capalbo said she wanted to clarify which municipal department was administering the perpetual care funds.
“Who is actually running the funds?” she asked. “Originally, obviously it went through the town clerk, but that’s when they had no treasurer or finance department. So does it go through finance? Does it go through the clerk? How do we do this in the 21st century?”
Council members finally agreed to transfer the funds to the finance department and ask the Historic District Commission to present a cemetery maintenance plan.
“I think we just spent more time on this tonight than has ever been spent on it by any department,” Thompson said. “I think our problem’s solved. All the things that have been brought up, the Historic District Commission is in the comprehensive plan to come up with a plan... I think that’s where it belongs, not with us. We just say yes or no when the money goes out.”
Prescott said he hoped that the cemeteries, particularly those visible from the road, would now get some attention.
“I don’t think we can go into the woods and cut all of those cemeteries over and spruce them up, but at least the ones on the road, whether they have funding or not, should look good,” he said. “Let’s take pride in them.”