As Milton opens the chapter on its 250th year this June, one of its oldest organizations could close its books.
The Milton Village Cemetery Association, first incorporated in February 1860, is home to some of the town’s oldest graves, dating back to 1796, just 33 years after the town was founded.
The town’s most prominent benefactor, Joseph Clark, is buried there, as is Noah Smith, the cemetery’s forefather, a Revolutionary War soldier and Vermont’s first Grand Master of Masons.
But the graveyard’s historical significance didn’t result in high earnings. Since the current association took over in December 2003 to date, it has posted $36,000 in losses, Treasurer/Secretary George Nelson said.
The profit/loss statements from those dates largely show the latter, and unless a backer comes out of the woodwork, the group will likely dissolve. State law says if that happens, cemeteries fall under the town’s purview.
But the town doesn’t want it.
Though Milton maintains seven cemeteries – mostly inactive, old, family plots – none is as large and as filled with trees as Milton Village on Main Street.
“Cemeteries are expensive to maintain,” Public Works Operations Supervisor Dustin Keelty said. “It’s very labor intensive having to mow around and trim around every stone.
“It’s not like you’re in a recreational field,” he continued. “It takes a little more finesse.”
Cemeteries – by law, nonprofit ventures – gain most of their revenue from selling lots and assessing burial fees.
Since 2003, Milton Village Cemetery has had about 80 burials, or nine per year. Nelson figures, at $200 each, they’d need about 12 annually to be solvent.
The shortfall in needed lot sale revenue is even starker: Since ’03, the cemetery has sold 100 plots or about 11 yearly; it needed to sell 16. Each 4-by-10-foot space costs $600.
To break even, the cemetery needs to make $12,000 annually. But the latest fiscal year, FY12, shows reality: It made just $5,000 and spent nearly $14,700, landing $9,700 in the hole.
To stay alive in the business of burying the dead, the association needs a large endowment or commitment of a few thousand annually.
“There’s four of us,” said Bob Lombard, who makes up the association with Nelson, Rod Brigham and Carroll Towne.” “None of us are young. We’re not going to have a car raffle.”
Ensuring perpetual care
The town of Milton was not in the business of running active cemeteries until last November, when it inherited the Milton Boro Cemetery.
Newer and much smaller than Milton Village, Milton Boro contains 100 free lots and about 150 graves, mostly from the turn of the century. It sits behind a stone wall on Beebe Hill Road.
Former Association Treasurer Allen Beaupre said Milton Boro suffered the same ills as Milton Village now experiences: high maintenance costs and fewer burials.
Beaupre said a “good year” meant selling five or six double plots for $300. It didn’t charge a burial fee. And it cost $2,500 annually to mow.
The association tried another tack: It sent out letters to survivors of those eternally resting, asking for donations, but the effort mostly floundered.
“It got where some of the older people were dying out, and the younger people didn’t want to spend any money to take care of the families’ graves,” Beaupre said.
Both associations fell victim to changing times, too: As cremations became more popular, survivors stopped burying their dead, or if they did, could fit four to a plot. Vermont law allows people to do what they wish – as long as its lawful – with loved ones’ remains, like sprinkling them atop a mountain or across a lake.
“You don’t buy a gravesite for that,” Beaupre said.
The former treasurer said it was tough to let Milton Boro go. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and three great uncles are all buried there. His father was also once treasurer of the cemetery association.
“I hated to do it, but we had people that didn’t want to donate any longer,” Beaupre lamented.
“It hurt,” he continued, “but in order to maintain it, the thing to do was to give it to the town.”
More than mowing
Nelson knows the town does a standup job taking care of the rest of Milton’s graveyards, but he admits he’s emotionally attached to the spot.
He’s held on to the original record book, dating back to 1850, that includes original mortgages for plots and meeting minutes. He spends a few hours weekly helping track down people long passed or the gravesite for someone newly gone.
“That’s where the pride comes in,” Lombard said. “You feel good when you go help somebody find a [grave] from 100 years ago. That’s just personal. Is the town going to get involved in all of that? Probably not? It can’t.”
Town Manager Brian Palaia wouldn’t say but admitted that with any change in management comes change in method. That could include raising lot and burial fees, he said.
If it takes Milton Village, the town would likely contract with a groundskeeper instead of assigning its Public Works crew to a task Keelty estimates takes up to six hours weekly.
Besides that, Palaia said, the town doesn’t have any of the necessary equipment: A new truck and trailer to haul a mower and a leaf vacuum could add up to $60,000, he said. That isn’t in the budget.
But $8,500 is: Palaia, Nelson and Lombard have met in recent months to prepare for a possible takeover. They’re trying to make what they fear is an inevitable transition a smooth one.
Palaia and Keelty hope the association can stay intact for at least another year, allowing the town to develop a long-term management plan, to assess cemetery space town wide and to name the site’s stewards. Without appointing a cemetery commission, the work defaults to the selectboard, Palaia said.
Ideally, though, the association will get an investor.
“I’m hopeful they’ll get the support they need to go forward on their own,” Palaia said.
In the meantime, the Milton Village Cemetery Association scheduled a public meeting to discuss dissolution. That’s set for Wednesday, April 17 at 7 p.m. at the Milton Fire Station’s small conference room.
“We want people to know we’re doing that,” Nelson said. “We’re doing it with a concern for the history. We don’t want to do it without careful thought.”
For more information or to make a donation to the Milton Village Cemetery, contact Treasurer/Secretary George Nelson at 893-4233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.