People & Places

Short-staffed due to Covid, overgrown cemeteries offer a historical view

Montpelier's Green Mount Cemetery has gone mostly unmowed during the pandemic. Photos by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

While many Vermonters went months without a haircut during the Covid-19 quarantine, some of the state’s cemeteries are still waiting for a trim.

Inmates from the St. Johnsbury prison typically mow grass and prepare for burials at Green Mount Cemetery, the 35-acre site in Montpelier established in 1854. But the Vermont Department of Corrections has suspended its offender work program during the pandemic, leaving all of Green Mount to the city’s two-person crew.

“We’re swamped with work,” said Patrick Healy, the site’s director. 

Across town, St. Augustine Cemetery, typically maintained by people on probation or parole, sits unmowed. Cemeteries in Burlington are feeling the strain too. “Without the offender work program, it’s been a real challenge,” said Holli Bushnell, the city’s cemetery assistant.

Green Mount Cemetery Director Patrick Healy dons a battery pack for an electric trimmer.

At Green Mount, Healy and his assistant prioritize new burials. They mow the front side of the cemetery, facing Route 2, and the westernmost quarter of the site, where those most recently laid to rest get more frequent visitors.

The remainder is more or less growing wild. Patches of wildflowers, dotted with bees and butterflies, now sprout between the headstones. The grass in some areas is about two feet tall.

In a typical year, Healy said, an eight-person crew could mow and trim the entire property in about two weeks — and then start over again. “Basically, as soon as we start mowing, we keep mowing until the end of the year.” 

The city would pay about $28,000 per year for the inmates’ services. Shifting to a private contractor would be cost-prohibitive, Healy said: “You could almost add a zero to it.”

But there’s an upside to the site’s recent look: it’s more historically accurate. “It could be argued that much of this cemetery was not mowed like a golf course until the mid 1970's or later,” Healy wrote to curious community members on Front Porch Forum last month.

At one time, the city’s trolley line ended at Green Mount, where families would bring picnics to their plots. Often, they would visit with their own scythes — not only was there no mowing crew, but there were no motorized lawn mowers.

Sculptors crafted monuments with tall grasses in mind, Healy said, hence the common design of one or more large bases underneath the family’s surname. “They want to make sure that when the horse and buggy drove by, they could see that name,” he said.

Trolley service ended in 1927, when a historic flood destroyed miles of lines. As the century progressed, families spent less time visiting — and maintaining — their plots.

“Back then, people didn't move away as much, so their family unit was close to mom and dad or to the grandparents,” Healy said. “And now there's so many people that have moved worldwide that they have lost that connection. I think people want to come back to it.”

Today, the site is as busy as it’s been in years. They’ve seen continued demand for new burials and monuments, Healy said — something that typically drops off during the warmer months. And with more people seeking outdoor activities close to home, Healy estimates that up to four times as many people are visiting the cemetery compared to a typical spring.

This year’s disruption has forced the city to reconsider its maintenance practices, and Healy thinks the wilder look could be worth keeping.

“Most people are glad to see the wildflowers coming. So it's just, how long do we let it go?” he said. “If we had more time to get away from burials, then we would probably mow a little bit more. But we're not.”

Montpelier, as seen from St. Augustine Cemetery.

Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.


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