Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Delaware's "Distressed Cemetery Fund"

Delaware is known as “First State,” because it was the first of the thirteen original states to ratify the United States Constitution. This it did on December 7, 1787. In 2009, it became the first state to pass a law to help distressed cemeteries - actually an amendment to an existing law (Titles 16 and 29 of the Delaware Code relating to Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services, Death Certificates, and Cemeteries) that established "The Distressed Cemetery Fund." 

Unless you’re in the cemetery business, you’re probably thinking, “Who cares?” However, as you will see, distressed cemeteries affect us all, in some way, shape, or form. (The photos I've included here are from cemeteries in other states, not Delaware.)

The most common fix an old cemetery can find itself in is that it is full, and can no longer accept burials. Therefore revenue comes to an end, as does the cemetery’s business. Except for one thing – the graves of those already interred need continual care. Even if the people who purchased the graves and PAID for continued upkeep, a cemetery may be hard-pressed to provide this long-term.

Forward-thinking cemeteries developed trust funds in which the interest may provide enough money to pay for “perpetual care” of the grave. Then again, it may not. If the annual cost of upkeep of a grave in 1866 cost $6.00 per year and the perpetual care fee was $50, would you expect the interest to continue to support the cost of upkeep through the year 2015? Hardly. Which is one reason so many historic cemeteries find themselves in difficult times.

Pennsylvania, for instance, has about 8500 cemeteries of various sizes. Only about 1000 of them are active, meaning they still accept burials. The other 7500 have to find other ways of paying for upkeep. With no income, a cemetery can fall on hard times. Maybe it gets overgrown and nasty-looking. Maybe it becomes a public nuisance, an eyesore, depressing nearby property values. Maybe it invites crime and eventually the city demolishes it. Perhaps the graves are moved to a larger, active cemetery, perhaps not.

The state of Delaware is the only state that I am aware of that has something called a Distressed Cemetery Fund. It’s purpose? Provide money to keep up the appearance and care of cemeteries in need. This is every bit as progressive as you would expect the “First State” to be. The fund  is generally used for making needed repairs and improvements, not for lawn maintenance expenses. (Click link to see application.)

So long as the cemetery is registered in the State of Delaware with the Division of Public Health of the Department of Health and Social Services, it can apply every two years for a grant of up to $10, 000. The Distressed Cemetery Fund is funded by adding $2.00 to the state fee for each copy of a certificate of death. Now get this for being progressive - A volunteer may register an abandoned cemetery! I know of two Friends groups that are associated with formerly abandoned Delaware cemeteries that have received the grant.

Unfortunately, most states do not have such a fund. Pennsylvania, where many of the photos in this article were taken, does not have such a fund. Why does Delaware bother? Why not just let the old cemeteries fall to pieces like just about every other state? In answer to that, let me quote from the State of Delaware’s official website:

"Cemeteries are essential elements of societies' collective history, providing fascinating insight into past burial customs, religious beliefs, cultural and ethnic influences, community origins and development, and landscape design principles. Although virtually every remnant from the beginnings of a town or city may be lost, cemeteries often remain as some of the last tangible links to the past.

In Delaware, many prominent historical cemeteries such as Dover's John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Cemetery and Wilmington's Riverview Cemetery (maintained respectively by the Dover Air Force Base and the Friends of Historic Riverview Cemetery) have been preserved due to the efforts of governmental agencies, private organizations, and individuals. Other historical cemeteries, unfortunately, are vulnerable to the threats of neglect, vandalism, and development." - Department of State - Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

In all fairness to the state of New York, that state has a law providing for grants that can be applied for to correct acts of cemetery vandalism. New York enacted this in 1989, “The “Vandalism, Abandonment, and Monument Repair Fund," which is administered by the New York Department of State, Division of Cemeteries. (Click link for application.) The fund is supported by a $5 per-burial fee, paid by the cemetery. It seems as though the fund is more trouble than it is worth, however, as the state has on at least one occasion frozen distribution payments even though it continued to collect the $5 fee!

"CEMETERY RIPOFF IS GRAVE SITUATION - Vandalism funds go to ease state budget (NY Daily News):"

"A bureaucratic form of grave-robbing is dishonoring the dead whose final resting places have been defiled by vandals, say furious cemetery officials across the city."