In West Rutland, it was headstones knocked over in a newly cleaned site.
In Vergennes, graves were spray-painted.
In those and numerous other instances of vandalism in cemeteries, the clean-up had to be done with private fundraising and volunteer labor — if it happened at all. A bill before the Legislature would create a fund that cemeteries could apply to for repairing damage from vandalism.
“Cemeteries — they’re an important part of our history,” said Rep. James Harrison, R-Chittenden, the bill’s lead sponsor.
The bill is in the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs while a similar measure has been proposed in the Vermont Senate. Harrison said the committee’s leadership has asked him to come discuss the bill next week.
“Then they will decide, with all the issues they have to deal with, where it fits in the priorities,” he said.
Harrison said he introduced the bill on behalf of Tom Giffin, who serves as chairman of the Rutland cemetery commission as well as president of the Vermont Old Cemeteries Association.
“I met Tom on a volunteer mission to do some cemetery repair in Mendon,” Harrison said. “Some of the damage is from old age and some is from vandalism.”
Giffin said vandalism is a long-running issue in Vermont cemeteries.
“Unfortunately, even in the 1800s, there were cases of vandalism in cemeteries,” he said. Lately, it’s been a lot more of an issue in small communities.”
Smaller towns, he said, lack funding to repair damage to their cemeteries.
“They barely have enough money to mow lawns in some places because people aren’t using cemeteries,” he said. “Cemeteries are becoming historical sites.”
Giffin said he modeled the proposal after a similar program in New York. It would institute a $5 fee on burials and cremations, creating revenue for the fund.
“We have about 5,000 deaths a year,” he said. “Funerals cost thousands of dollars. This would be a little money to put into a fund.”
Access to the fund would be controlled by the Vermont Old Cemeteries Association, which would make grants to cemeteries that have sustained vandalism that cannot be repaired through normal maintenance.
“The bill’s intent is not to make a new tax,” he said. “We have 2,000 cemeteries in Vermont. This is an opportunity for communities that do not have the means to repair damage.”
Mary Reczek, of the West Rutland Historical Society, said the fund could have been very handy when they were cleaning up the Pleasant Street Cemetery in 2017 and 2018. She said the effort began after they were contacted by a visitor appalled at conditions there. After clearing out brush and cleaning up headstones, she said 20 markers were knocked down.
“We bought all the cleaning agents, which ran almost $1,000,” she said. “The Legion Auxiliary, they put up some money.”
Reczek said the fund sounded like a good idea, and noted that there were more threats to Vermont cemeteries than just vandalism.
“As you drive through Vermont, you see a lot of abandoned cemeteries,” she said. “They don’t have the money of the labor to do anything about it. The acid rain on marble monuments in the last 15 years has been incredible.”