Following the discovery of human remains on the failing river embankment below Blake Cemetery in Stark, the Attorney General’s Office told town officials to shore up the bank -- or move the cemetery. But as NHPR’s Sean Hurley reports, either solution could bankrupt the small town.
About a mile from the Stark Covered Bridge - one of the most photographed bridges in the world - is the world’s most beautiful graveyard. I think so anyway, when Tim Emperor, the Chairman of Stark’s Cemetery Trustees, first takes me there. “There's not much in Stark that isn't beautiful,” he says. “We're surrounded by everything that's pretty.”
27 woebegone headstones tip and tumble toward the continuously failing edge of a grassy bluff 89 sheer feet above an ox-bow in the Upper Ammonoosuc River. “Revolutionary war folks are over there, civil war over here and just regular family folks,” Emperor says and pauses to listen as a little avalanche of sand and rock skitters down toward the water. “It’s falling right here,” he says. “It's caving in as we speak.”
Seven headstones stand now only inches from the crumbling embankment. But while the famous nearby bridge was renovated a few years back with the help of a $1.4 million dollar grant, the town-owned Blake Cemetery, Emperor says, has nearly been abandoned. “So eighteen months ago when I took office this was part of my desire to fix this cemetery,” Emperor says, “and we've been lobbying the selectmen to try to appropriate some funds to do that unsuccessfully for the last two years.”
The selectmen remained uninterested in Blake until State Police recovered a skull on the embankment here in late April…and Tom Donovan with the Attorney General’s office let officials know that not taking steps to safeguard the cemetery was a crime. “Based on what we understand,” Donovan says, “this problem of erosion has been going on for 20 years. So it should have been addressed years ago.”
Terry Shannon is 64 and lives in Berlin now but grew up playing in the river below the cemetery. He says bodies have been going into the water for more than 40 years. “You walked over you used to be able to see sometimes the coffins sticking out of the bank,” he tells me.
Shannon recalls the cemetery extending 30 feet further than where he stands now - by the cliffside headstone of his distant ancestor, Civil War Private William McFarland.
Forty years ago, Shannon says, this headstone was nowhere near the edge. “He was towards the back of the pack. This is like the furthest in. They were probably another six or eight rows,” Shannon says.
“Does it feel like most of the cemetery is gone?” I ask.
“Looks like maybe a third to two thirds are gone,” he says. “It's unfortunate. This is historic.”
But Terry Shannon’s cousin, Doug Shannon, now one of Stark’s three selectmen - who grew up on the Blake Farm adjacent to the cemetery - says none of that is true.
“I never remember seeing a stone over the bank or having one fall over. I never remember seeing one,” Doug Shannon says.
What’s truly been lost may never be known – but the town is now getting the figures on what it will take to fix the situation. Rough estimates to shore up the 100 feet of promontory approach the million dollar mark.
Excavating and moving the cemetery, Tim Emperor says, wouldn’t be cheap either. “The reality is you know,” he says, “it's at least 100 to $200,000 to remove the graves, dis-inter them and re-inter them in another cemetery that we have here in town.”
In a town with only a couple hundred taxpayers, both options are painful, says Selectman Doug Shannon. “You could bankrupt the town in a hurry if you have to do a $2 million project, you know?” he says.
For the last month, the cemetery trustees have been gathering proposals and bids to save, or move, the cemetery.
Tim Emperor says current townspeople didn’t make the decision to neglect the cemetery all those years. “But now they're going to be saddled with this decision,” he says, “and they're scared. People are very worried in town what's this gonna cost?”
Restoring and renovating Stark’s famous covered bridge made sense, Emperor says. But hardly anyone ever came to the beautiful - increasingly tragically so – cemetery above the ox-bow of the Upper Ammonoosuc, overlooking, for now anyway, as Tim Emperor says, everything that’s pretty.