The future maintenance of an island cemetery with graves dating back to the Civil War is in limbo after the association that cared for the property dissolved last month.
The caretakers of the Mount Warren Cemetery in Deer Isle voted to disband in early May, saying they were getting too old and couldn’t secure anyone among the island’s aging population to care for the graves. The question now is who will care for the graves.
“We can’t find anyone to mow,” said Donna Brewer, the association’s treasurer and a former Stonington Select Board member. “Everybody is just too old to do it.”
Elliott “Duke” Shepard, the president of the association, had mowed the cemetery and its more than 100 plots for 46 years. At 70, he decided to hang it up this year. His last Memorial Day mow was a bittersweet one, but he has been trying to get out of cemetery caretaking for a few years.
“I hate to see it not being taken care of because it’s a very old cemetery and historic to Deer Isle,” Shepard said. “I’ve had it for so long and took such pride in it, but I just don’t have the time anymore.”
The cemetery, situated in a part of Deer Isle that used to be called Warrenville, was officially incorporated in 1911 but had been served as a burial ground many years prior to that, according to Shepard.
The association also struggled with finances. There hasn’t been much money coming in to pay for caretaking. That ties to age, too.
Many plots at the cemetery are so old that there’s no longer any living relatives to help cover the cost of upkeep. That’s made it hard for the association to pay for the few other mowers in the area.
“There’s not many of us left that are paying,” Shepard said, who has family members in the cemetery.
Mount Warren is one of more than 50 cemeteries in Deer Isle, Stonington and other small surrounding islands, according to the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society.
Almost all of the ones in Deer Isle are private. Right now, the town only maintains one or two other local cemeteries, but it could be forced to take on mowing at Mount Warren too if no one else steps up.
State law requires municipalities to keep graves, headstones, monuments and markers designating the burial places of veterans from the U.S. armed forces in good condition if they are in an ancient burial ground. Private cemeteries are counted as ancient burial grounds if they were established before 1880. Towns, to the best of their ability, are also supposed to keep ancient burial grounds mowed between May 1 and September 30.
Whether Mount Warren would qualify as an ancient burial ground is unclear because it was incorporated in 1911, but has graves dating back to the mid-1800s.
Municipalities can collaborate with veteran organizations for caretaking. Deer Isle Town Manager James Fisher said he’s reached out to the Maine Municipal Association to double check the town’s duties.
Residents would have to give approval at the town meeting if the town wanted to take over full ownership of the cemetery.
Fisher wasn’t sure the Select Board would want to do that, as it could send the message for other associations to hand over their cemeteries to the town as well.
The issue is another loss of social infrastructure for the aging island, Fisher said.
Deer Isle’s nursing home closed last year due to the lack of staff, unaffordable housing and a host of other issues. It’s currently being looked at for other uses, and some have raised the idea of senior housing.
A church in Stonington, the other town on the island, announced earlier this year that it planned to close because of its dwindling attendance, partially chalked up to an aging population.
Maine is the oldest state in the country. Deer Isle’s median age is a hair above 56. That’s 20 percent higher than Hancock County’s median age, 25 percent higher than Maine’s overall median age of about 45 and about nine years older than Deer Isle’s own median age in 2010.
With the population getting older, that means the people left with connections to the cemetery are starting to die as well. New connections are unlikely because the cemetery has no more space left.
But Brewer said some will continue to privately care for their relatives’ lots, no matter what.
“We’ll take care of our own lots,” she said. “But there’s a lot of lots in there. It isn’t easy.”