The town of Milton has hired a sexton to maintain its cemeteries, town manager Don Turner said.
The news was welcome to the newly formed Friends of Milton Cemeteries, an offshoot of the nonprofit Milton Historical Society that aims to raise money for cemetery upkeep.
The group organized last fall to address issues of “perpetual care” in the town’s eight cemeteries. Though the town owns the graveyards, the budget doesn’t cover costs of resetting fallen stones or restoring them. Last month, the historical society formally recognized the Friends, who met for the first time last week.
Turner kicked off the meeting by announcing the sexton position, which became a necessity with Dustin Keelty’s impending retirement this week. For Keelty, the public works operations supervisor, dealing with cemetery plots was just one task on his full plate, and one that took lower priority, Turner said.
A few days later, Turner told the selectboard Peter Staniels accepted the position.
“I really want to get the cemeteries moving in a more proactive direction,” Turner told the Friends. “They’re some beautiful places – unfortunately, but they are – and we want to take care of them. And I want to focus on them some, but I don’t want it to be the highway guy who has to deal with everything else.”
Before 2016, the town only maintained Miltonboro and the Old West Milton cemeteries, two of four active burial grounds in town. But then the Milton Village Cemetery Association dissolved, handing over its books and significant upkeep to the town.
The town formed a cemetery commission, but Keelty was the guy on call when someone needed to find their plot – a task that’s sometimes harder than it sounds.
Turner envisions the sexton being paid a $2,000 stipend, or the amount of Keelty’s salary that was devoted to cemetery care.
“Cemeteries are a very important part of our community, and I want somebody who is taking an interest in that,” Turner said, “[so] it’s not just their fifth part of their job that gets done whenever somebody calls.”
Meeting attendee John Mayville suggested the town possibly appoint two sextons to share the work.
“People go on vacation, and people die. You can’t predict either one, so there might be a backup person involved with this,” he said.
Turner agreed with the concept, saying two appointees could possibly share the $125 interment fee paid at the time of burial.
So far, the Friends have relied on networking to make progress toward their goals. On this theme, Turner announced he’d found a retired firefighter from Burlington who’s interested in restoring old headstones for free. Friends member Karen Brigham said she knows a guy who wants to help fix the stone wall at Miltonboro.
This prompted a discussion on insurance and whether volunteers can perform the work under the town’s policy. Turner vowed to look into it.
Regardless of that outcome, Turner said he expects Staniels to work with both the town cemetery committee and the Friends, particularly helping the latter group devise a plan for funding its desired projects, a list of which the Friends are just beginning to formalize.
Last week, the group discussed outreach to the Vermont Old Cemetery Association for possible funding and querying military organizations that might have money to preserve veterans’ graves. Milton cemeteries boast headstones from Revolutionary War soldiers forward.
Turner also announced he hopes to use a portion of the voter-approved $2.4 million tax increment financing bond to fix up the Checkerberry cemetery fence. He suggested all town graveyards use uniform fencing and signage for consistency.
For Friends founder Jim Ballard, a town historian and member of the town cemetery committee, the end goal is simple.
“To make our cemeteries a place of respect,” he said. “Also a place for visitors to enjoy visiting. A place that is welcoming, not just a cemetery with fallen stones.”
For Brigham, that starts with cutting down some scraggly trees at Miltonboro Cemetery. The suggestion prompted an unexpected concern from Allen Beaupre, whose family has three generations buried there.
“If you do that, where are the chickens going to roost?” he wondered.
That question, like many others at this point, lingers for another day.