Danvers in many ways is a typical Massachusetts town. It is on the larger size in population (ranking 70th out of the 351 cities and towns in the commonwealth). It does, however, have a more infamous pedigree than most towns. Originally it was Salem Village, part of the town of Salem and the location of the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. It rarely gets the publicity, however, and tourists still flock to the town of Salem each Halloween, even though it was not the location of the trials. Today the town is facing a problem that is starting to come before many towns and counties throughout the United States: preserving historic burying grounds.
In New England most towns had a cemetery near the village common, often associated with a church. Family cemeteries are less common, but for a variety of reasons individuals and small groups did often create their own burial grounds. Danvers resident Samuel Holten was a judge, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, and an ardent voice in the Sons of Liberty. He served in the Continental Congress and was a signature of the Articles of Confederation. When he died in 1814, his will dictated that part of his property be set aside as a “burying pasture” for his family and others that lived in the area.
For two hundred years residents of the town served on in the cemetery association. Many of the leading families gratefully served. These members created an endowment by selling plots in the cemetery, hundreds of them. Through the years, veterans of Americas wars from the American Revolution through the Vietnam conflict were buried there. It was well cared for. Flowers and other mementos were often left at graves.
Unfortunately, in recent years, things have changed dramatically. The cemetery ran out of space. All spaces were sold and revenues dried up. It became more difficult to get people to serve in the association. The cemetery is in need of major repairs, not only to burial plots, but to retaining walls and other structures.
In December, the last member of the association informed the town that she could no longer manage things. The endowment was down to $18,000, and she saw no way to raise funds for more without burial plots to sell. She asked the town to take over managing the cemetery.
The town, however, is not obligated to do so. It is a private burying ground. After the major repairs are done, annual maintenance costs are estimated to be $14,000. There is dissent amongst citizens of the town as to whether or not the cemetery should be taken over by the town, supporting it with taxes. But there is an overwhelming feeling that the cemetery does need to be cared for, especially given its historic nature.
This situation is becoming more and more common all the time. Historic cemeteries have run out of ideas to raise money for care. Towns and counties are being faced with having to take them over or destroy the final resting place of hundreds or thousands of residents. We must find creative ways to help these burying grounds survive, or face a tragedy of irreplaceable loss. You can read more about the story of Holten’s cemetery in Historic Danvers Cemetery Orphaned, Neglected.