Many Connecticut cemeteries are not getting the attention or maintenance they need. Some are overgrown, others are overlooked. Preservationists worry that a lot of these cemeteries could become so neglected there may no longer be an opportunity to save them.
"It's a business like everything else. It has to make money. When you no longer have space to bury people, you no longer have money," said Ruthie Shapleigh-Brown, executive director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network. The group's mission is to preserve old and overlooked burial sites across the state.
At Scott Swamp Cemetery in Farmington, the grass needed to be cut and weeds need to be pulled. In Meriden at West Cemetery, some of the tombstones were toppled over. Meanwhile, in Pomfret, the area off of Murdock Road is so overgrown it was difficult to see that Dennis Cemetery is even there. In recent years, municipalities have been asking for state money to help maintain these cemeteries and dozens of others as well.
"It's your roots. It's where your history began. It's where your freedom for American began," said Shapleigh-Brown.
State law says cemeteries can be “acquired, owned, managed and controlled” by ecclesiastical societies, cemetery associations or by towns themselves. But that law does not require that towns perform cemetery maintenance.
"What good are state statutes?" asked Shapleigh-Brown. "Why do we have them if we can only apply them by choice?"
In 2014, the state established the Neglected Cemetery Account, authorizing the Office of Policy and Management to make grants available on a first-come, first-served basis for cities and towns needing help covering the costs of clearing weeds and brush, mowing and fixing fences, walls and gravestones. The grant money comes from fees collected from death certificates.
First Selectman of Pomfret Maureen Nicholson said her town was among the more than 40 municipalities that applied for the $2,000 grant in 2015 and the more than 30 communities that applied for the grant in 2016. Pomfret has yet to be selected.
"If they don't get regular maintenance or attention they disappear into the landscape, they just become overgrown," said Nicholson. "There's a resurgence and interest in preserving what we have and some of our historic landmarks are cemeteries."
The town has taken an unusual approach at Dennis Cemetery, inviting the neighbor’s four goats to literally eat away at the vegetation that has overtaken this final resting place.
"Want to pay tribute to them, want to know who they are?" said Nicholson. "This is one way to do that. Make sure they're not forgotten."
Shapleigh-Brown, meanwhile, said she will continue on her mission for as long as she can. But she - like these cemeteries - are going to need some help.
"There has to be a movement as to whether this history is worth protecting," said Shapleigh-Brown.
The cemetery grants were given out to 15 communities in 2015 and 22 towns in 2016. No grants were awarded in 2017. Applications for 2018 are currently being considered. These grants will likely be a minimum of $2,000 per grantee, with the possibility of being up to $4,000 per grantee, according to the Office of Policy and Management.