RAYMOND — Relatives of those buried in the New Pine Grove Cemetery were shocked when they showed up this spring to prepare headstones for the season and found flower urns and mementos that went untouched for decades had suddenly disappeared.
“This year when I came down to put plants in the urns they were missing. I didn’t know where they were. I had no idea. On certain graves the urns were there,” said Michael Pettengill, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran from Epping whose parents are buried there.
Pettengill later learned that decorations from his family’s grave and dozens of others had been removed and stored behind the cemetery as part of a cleanup effort that caught many by surprise.
According to Town Manager Joe Ilsley, the removal was part of a plan to begin enforcing 25-year-old rules requiring that items be taken off gravesites and stored during the winter months.
But the handling of the removal has upset some families who have had to search for their items that in some cases were broken and stuffed in bags.
“This is hallowed ground. Don’t crack our stuff. Don’t put it in trash bags,” said Pettengill’s niece, Amy Pettengill of Raymond.
She said she knows someone whose child is buried in another cemetery, but the angel that was on his stone for 18 years was removed and was being stored in a trash bag with the items in the New Pine Grove Cemetery.
The Pettengills and others have also questioned a new cemetery sexton’s handling of the cemetery rule enforcement and the removal of their memorial decorations.
Some are expected to raise their concerns with selectmen at their board meeting Monday night. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the high school media center.
In recent weeks, Ilsley said some residents have “elevated some concerns about the enforcement of the cemetery rules and regulations.”
“We’ve got to sit down and listen to them to make sure we move forward as a community to address this. There are times when you can do things with good intentions, but they don’t have the outcome you desire,” he said.
Ilsley said the cleanup was part of a three-year effort to bring the cemeteries up to standard. That included making sure the cemeteries were tidied up before winter so that they could be more easily maintained in the spring.
He said that last fall the town implemented policies and procedures for cleaning up the cemeteries before winter and that they were posted online and at the entrance of the cemetery.
“Items that were not picked up were cleaned up and held in the vault and then later on moved to the back portion of the cemetery. As residents were coming forward and contacting town hall, we were letting them pick up the items that they needed,” Ilsley said.
When the town advertised for a cemetery cleanup last fall, Amy Pettengill said she never thought it meant removing items that had been on gravestones for many years.
Her uncle was stunned when he saw the hundreds of items that were removed and now being stored at the back of the cemetery.
“I could not believe it when I walked down there and saw what I saw,” Michael Pettengill said.