Historic Cemetery Oversight

The overall goal is preservation and stabilization to prevent future damage of historic burying grounds. Whenever possible, work is done to enhance the general appearance with well-kept lawns, informational signage, and other components (such as fencing) kept in good repair.  

According to that state’s Historic Cemeteries Preservation Initiative, all outdoor elements need regular maintenance regardless of age or condition. Additionally, a “well-maintained site tends to discourage vandalism and promote further community support.” 

Along with landscaping issues (lawns, trees, plantings, and vegetation management) other major issues related to historic cemeteries involve: access, security, vandalism, condition of grave markers, and the condition of mound tombs built into hillsides or standing alone.

Caring for historic gravestones must be done by those trained in proper cleaning and preservation techniques. The various types of stone (slate, marble, sandstone, limestone, and soapstone) each require a different technique for cleaning and removing biological growths such as lichens. Often sealants are used to prevent the intrusion of moisture.

Repairing broken gravestones is a task that must be undertaken with extreme care with the ultimate goal of reconstruction (often off-site and then replaced) or complete replacement with a newly carved stone. Tomb Tables, Box Tombs, and Vault Structures must also be carefully repaired, usually with a special adhesive and sometimes even reinforced with fiberglass. Fortunately, there are new preservation techniques being developed.

Ground disturbance at historic cemeteries, even those located on a private property, is of great concern to the Massachusetts Historic Commission as well as many other state and local groups. Random digging or unauthorized excavation should not be done in historic burial grounds without appropriate supervision and oversight. Not having adequate historic documents means not knowing how many people are buried in a historic cemetery. Also, it is never known exactly how deeply bodies are buried. Bone fragments are sometimes found only six inches beneath the ground.

Flag display is another responsibility of the cemetery commission. Each spring, the historic cemeteries receive a post-winter check and are prepared for Memorial Day. Working in conjunction with the town’s Veteran’s Affairs Officer, the commission is charged with making sure an American flag is displayed at every veteran’s grave, from the Revolutionary War to present day. Some cemeteries with military association have flagpoles that are maintained by the responsible constituency.  

Enforcement of regulations is also the ongoing job of the RCC. Historic cemeteries located on private property are carefully monitored by unauthorized excavation, vandalism, and other activities such as putting up a flagpole, fencing, or illumination.