The state is asking the non-profit in charge of Bethlehem Cemetery to seek-out new board members, instead of abandoning the burial ground to be cared for by the town.
Bethlehem Cemetery board members voted to officially abandon the cemetery in April, after operators Tom and Valerie Newell said they wished to retire. However, after a meeting last week with the state Division of Cemeteries, they have been asked to make every effort to not turn operations over to the town.
“We can step away, but we would like to have a new board in place before that happens,” said Tom Newell, Bethlehem Cemetery Association president. “The board voted (for abandonment) for a reason, and we’re disappointed that didn’t happen. We felt that was the best way for it to go in the future. I would wish well of the new board, but financially it will be difficult.”
Bethlehem Cemetery has been in operation since 1865 and is the main cemetery in the center of town. It is still financially viable as there are still some lots left to be sold, though not many. Valerie Newell said it is stable for the short term, but someone would need to volunteer the hours of record and bookkeeping. The cemetery has no employees, but uses contractors for maintenance and grave digging.
“I thought turning it over to the town would be in the best interest of everyone, but the state told me to stand down, they were in charge,” said Valerie Newell, who’s been on the board for 12 years. “I do not believe if it became a municipal cemetery, it would be a hardship to the town.”
Although the informational meeting last Thursday at Town Hall was officially canceled because it was not announced with enough time in accordance to state law, the Newells and Supervisor John Clarkson did show up in case any lot owners had questions.
Clarkson said about 20 people showed up, mostly lot owners. The general consensus was most who attended wanted to see the cemetery to remain privately operated. The state has asked the association to find new members, with the possibility of another cemetery taking over operation during the transitional period.
The Newells said lot owners should not be worried, no matter what happens. The deeds are honored whether it’s a municipal cemetery, or not. “The cemetery was there long before I came in, and will be there long after I’m buried there,” she said. “I’ve loved it, but we all have our seasons and it’s time for me to retire.”
Clarkson said the town is willing to give aide.
“The cemetery is of community interest,” said Clarkson. “We’ll do whatever we can do to help from a town’s perspective. We’re willing to consider certain forms of assistance, like records storage and such, if it can help.”
The supervisor said he was not in the meeting held by the state and cemetery association. He did call the state Division of Cemeteries last month to learn more about cemetery procedures, since he was worried about the short time frame.
The Newells were originally going to retire by June 12, but will now stay on a bit longer. Other board members were also planning to step down, but some may stay. The board needs a minimum of five members to stay operational. If none are found, the state could go to court and appoint new board members.
“We don’t want that to happen,” said Tom Newell. “Our goal has always been to serve our families well, and we want that to continue.”
Anyone interested in becoming a Bethlehem Cemetery Association board member, can visit www.bethlehemcemetery.com.