Pittsfield weighs adopting town cemetery that, technically, isn’t
Donald Fife has lived in Pittsfield his whole life. His favorite place after 64 years? Not Drake Park, not the view overlooking the Suncook River, not the top of the hill on the way into town along Main Street.
It’s Floral Park Cemetery. The corner with the oldest graves, to be exact. The stones there, some almost too weathered to be read, date back to 1886, 1868, 1865.
“I think it’s the best part of town,” Fife said of the burial ground that sits, sprawling, atop a hill at the corner of High Street and Barnstead Road.
His opinion on the cemetery is a bit biased, of course. Yours might be, too, if you spent the last four decades taking care of it.
Now, though, Fife faces an uncertain future as the town weighs whether to take over the burial site from the privately run Pittsfield Cemetery Association. As the town considers whether to assume permanent financial responsibility for Floral Park, it will likely also weigh whether to retain Fife – the sole caretaker, whose compensation accounts for most of the cemetery’s current expenses – or to put the work out to bid elsewhere.
In recent months, the town has been providing financial assistance to offset the association’s financial shortfalls, which cemetery association President Dave Pollard attributes to its dwindling trust funds. This summer, Pittsfield has set aside $6,700 for the cemetery: $2,700 for July and $4,000 for August, said Cara Marston, cemetery association treasurer and town administrative assistant.
Separately, another resident has been soliciting money to repair the fence around Floral Park’s perimeter. That fundraiser has no bearing on the cemetery’s current funding situation or its potential adoption, Marston said, and the cemetery association has not yet contributed.
Marston and Town Administrator Michael Williams said the selectmen have not yet decided how much to set aside for future assistance. The decision to adopt the cemetery will likely to go to a vote at next year’s town meeting, Pollard and Williams said. For now, the town is taking its support month-to-month.
The cemetery association’s annual expenses are about $28,000, and Marston said about three-fourths of that goes toward compensating Fife. Equipment and other maintenance costs account for the rest of it, Pollard said. That’s likely a “conservative amount” for the town to consider for its budget if it were to take over the cemetery, Marston said.
Pollard, who owns Perkins & Pollard Funeral Home in town, said it’s safe to assume Fife’s labor amounts to at least full time.
“He’s constantly mowing and trimming all summer,” Pollard said. “When it’s all done at the top end, he goes back down and starts at the bottom end.”
Fife’s days often start as early as 7 a.m. and, weather permitting, don’t end until the late afternoon. He does a lot of yard work, cutting the grass and trimming around the edges of the monuments. Every once in a while, he’ll repair a headstone. When someone is buried at Floral Park, he digs their grave.
“The older you get, the harder it gets for one person,” Fife said.
Still, he likes the work and says tending to the cemetery is an important responsibility. It’s also nice and quiet, he said, and “nobody bothers you, really.”
Speaking while mowing one morning last week, Fife also said he wishes the cemetery association would have taken more proactive steps to address its financial footing years ago. For his part, he’d like to see the cemetery stay private – he worries about a potential tax increase its adoption might place on Pittsfield residents, he said.
Maybe, he suggested, the town could try to organize some kind of event to solicit more residents’ help with its upkeep.
But for now, Fife said he doesn’t intend to become heavily involved in the debate over the cemetery’s future.
“Got to let the people of town decide,” Fife said.
The decision to adopt the cemetery isn’t just a financial one. New Hampshire state law dictates that “every municipality shall provide one or more suitable cemeteries for the interment of deceased persons within its boundaries.” But Pittsfield, as it stands, has no formal town cemetery.
This discrepancy was overlooked for quite some time, Pollard and the other town officials recalled. And if you asked residents, they said, most would probably just assume Floral Park is town-run.
If nothing else, those in Pittsfield might be able to take comfort in knowing issues surrounding the cemetery’s maintenance are nothing new.
A few decades after it opened in 1864, Floral Park “began to show the neglect that is so often the fate of the resting places of the dead in New England,” E. Harold Young wrote in a 1953 book on the town’s history.
In 1890, Young writes, some Pittsfield women formed a Floral Union in 1890 to tend to the grounds. Later, after someone else took over the care of the cemetery’s front entrance, Young said one Floral Union member confessed that the group wasn’t as successful as it hoped to be.
Still, the member said, according to Young, “We feel as though we have made some improvement and that our cemetery does not present so neglected an appearance as it did in the years previous to 1890.”
In his book, Young also wrote, “The citizens take pride in keeping the grounds in order and adorned with beautiful flowers in season.”
Fife and Pollard said that much also seems true today.
“People insist that the cemetery be kept,” Pollard said. “If it isn’t, we hear about it.”
(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)