Fallen grave markers at Cranberry Horn Cemetery, on Cundy’s Harbor Road. (Sam Lemonick photo)

Harpswell’s private cemeteries have graves dating back two centuries, but today’s economic and demographic challenges mean some of them may soon need more help from the town to keep operating.

Town officials came to that conclusion after meeting with representatives of five private cemeteries in Harpswell: Bailey Island, north of Mackerel Cove; Cranberry Horn, on Cundy’s Harbor Road; Hillcrest, in Harpswell Center; Orr’s Island, across from the firehouse; and West Harpswell, south of Mitchell Field.

Representatives of four of the five cemeteries told the town they are struggling, to varying degrees, to retain enough volunteers to keep their cemeteries going, and several have asked the town for more financial support. Only the Bailey Island Cemetery Association described its operation as sustainable. A draft report from the town outlines the cemeteries’ resources and needs.

One, Cranberry Horn Cemetery, has asked the town to take over ownership. The town currently owns two cemeteries: Graveyard Point Cemetery, at the end of Harpswell Neck; and Old Meetinghouse Cemetery, in Harpswell Center. Both are closed to new burials.

The town is not planning to make any immediate decisions regarding its relationships with the private cemeteries, according to Select Board member Jane Covey, who met with the cemetery representatives in 2021 and 2022. But, she said, the meetings made Harpswell “aware that the relationship between the town and the cemeteries is a question we’ll have to revisit.”

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane and Deputy Administrator and Treasurer Terri Gaudet also participated in the meetings.

Currently, the town provides money annually to each cemetery to help them maintain veterans’ graves, as required by state law. In 2022, Harpswell also approved requests for approximately $4,000 each for Cranberry Horn and Hillcrest.

The same year, Orr’s Island Cemetery requested $150,000 to help expand its burial ground, but the town declined. The town’s cemetery review group noted that it is not clear that the expansion is needed right now, or that it is feasible, or that the cemetery is incapable of raising the money on its own.

Cranberry Horn Cemetery has asked the town to take over its operation and ownership. (Sam Lemonick photo)

James Jones, president of the Orr’s Island Cemetery Association, said the group is reevaluating its plans in light of the town’s decision. “We’re thinking it’s going to be a $200,000 project and there’s no way we’re going to raise that money on our own,” he said. But he also said the cemetery has space for new burials, and the expansion is a long-term project that won’t happen for 10-12 years.

Jen Stuart, of Cundy’s Harbor, helps to run Cranberry Horn Cemetery, along with two other volunteers. “All of us love caring for the Cranberry Horn Cemetery. It’s full of generations of our loved ones,” Stuart said. She is nonetheless patiently waiting for the town to take over the cemetery’s operation.

Covey said the town has not made any decisions regarding taking over a private cemetery, nor do the criteria for doing so yet exist.

Until then, Stuart said, she will continue acting as Cranberry Horn’s point of contact for burials and plot purchases, but the cemetery will ask the town for more money each year, starting with its mowing expenses. Cranberry Horn Cemetery is the only one of the five that lacks capacity to raise funds, according to the town’s report.

Some 8 miles to the southwest, the situation is very different. Inez Dudley, who helps manage the Bailey Island Cemetery as part of a local nonprofit called Willing Helpers, said they get all the help they need from their community.

An annual fundraising campaign brings in between $2,000 and $3,000, Dudley said, and the group has been able to fund other projects as needed, like replacing a fence knocked down by a snowplow. The group has also received bequests from residents.

Separately from the issues with money and volunteers, the town did determine in its meetings that each of the cemeteries has sufficient capacity for new burials for the foreseeable future.

The town has shared its draft report with each of the cemeteries and is waiting for their comments before finalizing the review.

Covey said the cemeteries are important to the town. Whatever ends up being the arrangement between the town and the organizations that run Harpswell’s private cemeteries, she said, “My view is, it’s important that we demonstrate our respect for those who came before.”

Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.