People & Places

After unmarked graves discovered, Warren set to exhume

Warren cemetery
Civil War-era tombstones in the Warren cemetery. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

WARREN — For the second time this year, Sidney Wing is making the three-day journey east to bury his mother.

In June, Wing had driven most of the way from his home in Oklahoma for his mother’s interment in Vermont when he got a call from the funeral director with some unexpected news: A Warren cemetery official had just informed him there were no vacant spots left in the family plot.

The problem, according to Wing, was there should have been two empty spots left in their family’s section where his mother could be laid to rest next to her husband, their son who died in a car accident and a daughter who was stillborn.

Instead, those two spots were already occupied — and town officials had no idea who was buried there.

Wing was stunned.

“It was like, how can this be possible?” Wing said.

The discovery of misplaced burial sites, unusual but not unheard of among Vermont cemetery officials, kicked off a lengthy and expensive process that Warren officials and the Wing family hope to conclude early this month.

The oldest part of the Warren Town Cemetery sits on the eastern side of a parking lot that stretches between the town offices and the village church.

A few slender older marble headstones now stand off kilter, like that marking the grave of a local man who died in 1837. Small American flags mark the memorials of a dozen local men lost in the Civil War.

Up a steep pine-shaded slope, the newer part of the cemetery stretches back more than 500 feet. Blush-tipped hydrangeas punctuate the tidy rows of the modest lot, and a sweet late-summer floral perfume hangs in the air.

It was in this newer area that the Wing family planned to bury their mother.

Wing’s parents, both Vermont natives, bought the plot in the late 1940s after the birth of the stillborn daughter. After Wing’s mother died in December, the family planned to lay her to rest alongside her husband and children in the spring.

Family members were driving from Kentucky and Arkansas. Wing’s daughter was boarding a flight from Colorado.

Warren cemetery
The newer section of the Warren town cemetery. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Wing had driven for three days when he got the call. In anticipation of digging the grave, a cemetery commissioner had found indications of two unmarked burial vaults — a structure one Vermont cemetery director described as an “upside-down butter dish” that holds the casket and prevents the ground from settling.

Town officials offered the Wing family a plot in a new part of the cemetery, but the family felt strongly that they wanted to keep their current space, Wing said.

Then a town official offered space in her family plot, situated on the other side of the Wings’ headstone, he said, which the family accepted.

The family proceeded with the burial of Wing’s mother, but with the plan that her remains would be exhumed and reinterred in the family plot after the unidentified vaults were relocated.

“While we feel sorry for these unknown souls – they need to be moved from OUR family’s plot and my mother needs to be laid to rest beside her husband,” Wing told VTDigger.

Wing does not blame the town officials currently running the cemetery for the mistake and said they have been gracious in handling it. However, he sees issues with how town cemetery records have been kept in the past.

“To say that we were all angry, hurt, confused and stressed – would be an understatement,” he said.

The town first posted notice of the plan to dig up the two burial vaults on July 13.

“There are no Town or Cemetery Commission records which establish the identity of the persons so interred, their dates and circumstances of internment, or that the internment sites are occupied,” read the notice published in the Valley Reporter.

“I wish I could say exactly what happened,” said Michelle Eid, treasurer and secretary of the Cemetery Commission.

Town officials went back and scrubbed cemetery records but found no explanation for who might be buried there and when that might have happened.

“We’ve done everything possible to identify what happened there, and we don’t know,” Eid said.

Eid said there are several possible scenarios. The burials could predate town records or could have been done without the knowledge of the town, she said.

A member of the commission for nearly 25 years, Eid believes the burials predate her tenure.

She is looking forward to resolving the situation.

“I’m so upset about this and feel so much for the family,” Eid said.

After the discovery of the unmarked, unrecorded vault, the town brought in Vermont Underground Locators.

Kyle Guyette, a technician for the company, said he’s done work in cemeteries before — looking for buried drainage pipes — but never to find vaults.

Using stroller cart-mounted ground penetrating radar technology, Guyette scanned the earth across three plots, he said.

The technology sends radar into the ground, which registers types of soil, minerals, air pockets or anything else underground. When the technology finds an anomaly in the earth, it appears in the reading as a mountain peak-shaped figure, he said.

When scanning the ground in the Warren cemetery, Guyette picked up signatures of the edges of what could be two burial vaults — confirming the suspicions of a cemetery commissioner who had probed the area previously.

“The only thing I could tell them is that there is definitely something there,” Guyette said.

The Cemetery Commission then set about the legal process for exhuming the unidentified vaults.

After the public notice, there was a 30-day period when anybody could file an objection in court to the plan. Nobody objected, and the town clerk is expected to issue a permit to allow the removal of the vaults in early September.

In total, Eid expects the relocation of the two unmarked burial vaults could cost the Cemetery Commission thousands of dollars each.

The cemetery commission is aware that there are other vaults buried in places where they are not recorded, according to chair of the commission Charles Snow. They are currently working with families who own those plots to determine next steps.

Patrick Healy, director of the Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier, said he’s aware of similar instances in other cemeteries in the state — including the one he manages.

When one family went to bury a relative in the plot it had owned since the 1940s, the family discovered somebody had already been buried there in error.

In that case, Healy said, the cemetery was able to determine who the individual was and connect with the executor of his estate. With permission from the executor, the vault was exhumed and moved to a different part of the cemetery, without needing to go through the process of posting public notice.

Asked if he knew how that error occurred, Healy responded: “No idea.”

Sometimes, records are not as complete as they could be, Healy said. Other times, knowledge has been lost when cemetery commissioners die, or the cemetery caretaking changes hands.

One way of avoiding such confusion is setting a policy that graves must be marked, either by a vertical headstone or a flat stone, he said.

However, even with marked burial sites, there can be confusion. Sometimes graves are erroneously dug on the wrong side of a marker, he said.

“There are opportunities to make a mistake,” he said.

This weekend, Wing will drive east to stay with a friend in Connecticut. He’ll stay through the week, so he is nearby when the town moves forward with exhuming the unmarked vaults and placing them someplace else.

His mother’s remains will be removed from the current location and placed in the Wing family plot at that time, next to her husband and children, “and then our family will be satisfied,” he said.

“Some things just shouldn’t be rocket science,” Wing said. “Burying a loved one is one of those things.”

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