A heavily amended LD 1662, “An Act to Clarify the Laws Governing the Maintenance of Veterans’ Graves,” was signed by Gov. Paul LePage April 6 and will become law on Aug. 1, but it is not too early for towns and their residents to take action to implement the revised cemetery law.
The law sets minimum standards for the care of veterans’ graves. Municipalities must ensure that grass is “suitably cut and trimmed,” “keep a flat grave marker free of grass and debris,” and “keep the burial place free of fallen trees, branches, vines and weeds.”
Municipalities may adopt care standards for veterans’ graves above what is specified. Those standards “at a minimum must detail how to maintain the grave, grass and headstones.” Municipalities are to write the standards “in collaboration with veterans’ organizations, cemetery associations, civic and fraternal organizations and other interested persons.”
There is nothing in law that prohibits a municipality from adopting standards for the care of non-veteran graves or ancient burying grounds. An ancient burying ground is defined in law as a private cemetery established prior to 1880.
The revised law recommends the following level of care for such graves: “To the best of its ability given the location and accessibility of the ancient burying ground, the municipality may keep the grass, weeds and brush suitably cut and trimmed from May 1st to September 30th of each year on all graves, headstones, monuments and markers.”
By law, people who have an ancient burying ground on their property may choose to care for it themselves. The revised law expands municipal authority to oversee conditions in ancient burying grounds, giving the municipality or its designated cemetery caretaker the right to access the ancient burying ground to determine if it is being maintained. If it’s not being well maintained, “the municipality may take over the care or appoint a caretaker.”
Therefore, it is important that municipalities write standards of care for ancient burying grounds or, at the least, write an ordinance that mandates that the three standards listed in law for the care of veterans’ graves apply to all graves in ancient burying grounds.
Those who are interested in the preservation of ancient burying grounds or who are members of veterans’ organizations, cemetery associations, and civic and fraternal organizations are encouraged to step forward and help their town write the standards for the care of veterans’ graves and ancient burying grounds in their community.
There is no argument that many municipalities need help paying to restore, repair and maintain veterans’ graves. Many towns cannot even afford to clear their cemeteries and ancient burying grounds of brush and weeds. They may not know who to ask for help and may not think residents care. Members of the Maine Old Cemetery Association, Maine Genealogical Society, veterans groups, lineage societies, Scout troops and private citizens are ready, willing and able to help towns care for all their cemeteries with educational workshops and donations of money, physical labor and materials.
For an excellent example of how residents can get involved in cemetery care, visit http://bit.ly/cemrestore to learn about a restoration fund managed by the Damariscotta Historical Society.
If people are already caring for veterans’ graves or an ancient burying ground, thank you. If they or their group know of an ancient burying ground or veterans’ graves that need care, they should go to the local town office and register their willingness to care for them. If they cannot offer physical service, they might consider making a donation to the town for cemetery maintenance.
Over the summer, an ad hoc committee with members from the Maine Genealogical Society, Maine Old Cemetery Association, Maine Municipal Association, Maine Veterans Services, and the Maine Cemetery Association will be reviewing all laws pertaining to cemeteries and will be offering further legislation, giving municipalities more power to preserve and protect cemeteries, clarify definitions of “cemetery” and “veteran,” and address issues of vandalism and responsibility for cemetery care.
Everyone benefits from knowing who is responsible for what when it comes to caring for the resting places of our veterans and early settlers.
Helen Shaw of Rockport is the legislative liaison for the Maine Old Cemetery Association and president of the Maine Genealogical Society.