The economic stress making existence difficult for some of the living, has also wreaked havoc on the dearly departed, giving rise to the concerns of Annabel Carlson, 85, of Marion.
Non-profit independent cemeteries ,such as the East Palmyra Cemetery, survive on sales of graves, gifts and endowments. It has become evident that some cemeteries cannot make ends meet, and their appearance is suffering as a result.
In a June, 2013 letter to the East Palmyra Cemetery Association, Carlson wrote, “I was told that you don’t have enough money to take care of it. (E. Palmyra Cemetery) I was very much hurt in my heart when I saw it in the spring. I would like to give a donation to help keep it in good condition. …This is the least that I can do to show my respect for them. (her ancestors) …”
To date, Carlson said she has not received a response and is upset that conditions have not improved in the cemetery on Whitbeck Road near the East Palmyra Presbyterian Church.
Independent cemeteries have been regulated by the state since 1847 when incorporation of rural cemetery associations began. For the next 100 years many provisions were added and resulted in the Membership Corporations Law which was later repealed and replaced.
The New York State Cemetery Board was created by statute in 1949 and now the Division of Cemeteries regulates more than 1900 not-for-profit cemetery corporations including East Palmyra Cemetery Association.
East Palmyra Cemetery and others derive operating income from the sale of gravesites, interment fees, donations and investment income. Over time the income from the sale of gravesites and interments will decline, but the cemetery must be kept open, tended and ideally avoid becoming a liability on municipalities, such as the Town of Palmyra. Other factors such as increases in cremations, use of mausoleums, shifts of population to other areas, and aging of volunteer caretakers have impacted its financial and operational aspects.
According to regulations, the cemetery must allot 25% of gross proceeds as follows: 10% to the Permanent Maintenance Fund (PMF), a trust fund to maintain and preserve the cemetery in the future and 15% to the Current Maintenance Fund for current operational expenses. The remainder may be used for current expenses or to retire indebtedness created when the cemetery was formed or enlarged.
The principal of the PMF must be invested in accordance with State law and may not be utilized for current expenses, except with the permission of a NYS Supreme Court judge. That money will be used for cemetery care after all lots have been sold and interments have ceased. Income from interest-bearing funds has dwindled because of falling interest rates and money available for upkeep has decreased.
The history of the East Palmyra Cemetery began in 1794 when Humphrey Shearman, a Revolutionary War veteran from Rhode Island buried his first wife in the shade of great old maple trees on their property. Ownership of the Shearman family cemetery was turned over to the Congregational Society and Trustees on March 26, 1806 and recorded January 14, 1828.
In October 1852, Sherman’s grandson Byron and wife Cynthia sold 1 ½ acres to expand the cemetery. In October 1883, Jeremiah Beal sold them two more acres. The East Palmyra Cemetery Association was formed in 1895 and a map of graves was made in 1905. In June 1942, 1 ½ more acres were added from the Beal estate and an additional two acres were purchased in 1997.
For many years, area residents volunteered caretaking services or worked for minimum wage. Until this year, grave sales, interment fees and return on investments enabled the Cemetery to hire caretakers for mowing, trimming and minor repairs, but that is no longer possible.
EPC Board member John Rush reported that in 2012 the total cost of care including wages and other labor costs, gas and repairs was $7,772.58. In keeping with state regulations, the total available in 2013 is less than one-third of that, or $2,434.40. According to Cemetery records, one lot was sold in 2012 for $425. To date, one lot was sold in 2013 with two more in the process, for a total of $1,275 to be divided, according to state requirements, listed above. Interest income was not available at this writing.
Although much of the grass on the five acre cemetery can be mowed with their large riding mower, the spaces between the stones cannot and require hours of trimming with a small mower or weed-eater. The heavy rainfall this spring and summer encouraged rapid grass growth and, in a normal year, the amount of trimming could be reduced by spraying, but weather conditions prevented that this year, giving the grounds a very unsightly appearance.
Rush and Cemetery Superintendent Donald Wilkins addressed the Palmyra Town Board meeting on July 25, 2013 at which they were informed that the Town has no mowers and actually contracts with the Village of Palmyra for Town Hall maintenance, as well as the small rural cemeteries. It was decided at the meeting that, to be pro-active, the Town should talk with the Cemetery Board, possibly at the Cemetery Board’s annual meeting in October. Meanwhile, volunteers from K & D Disposal and private residents have provided occasional help.
Although suggested possible alternatives would be to enlist the help of volunteers such as Scouts, LDS Church, community service groups or other interested persons, that has not been explored and might only prolong the agony rather than provide a permanent solution.
According to Melinda VanEnwyck, Treasurer, if the present condition persists, the Cemetery would need to be turned over to Palmyra in 2015 and taken care of at taxpayer expense.
Meanwhile, Annabel Carlson promises to do what is necessary to honor her family, even if it involves moving them to new grave sites at her own expense, where she feels they would receive suitable attention.
“I hope something can be done, but I don’t know what,” she said.
by Beth Hoad