Historic Red Church Cemetery in Tivoli may soon be turned over to the Town of Red Hook for management, according to long-time trustees Hildegard Edling and Jacki Szatko.
In an interview, Edling and Szatko said that the cemetery had become too much for the current board of 10 trustees to manage, partly because of state requirements for bi-annual financial auditing, employee compensation, report filing, and annual site inspections.
“Unless some miracle occurs, we can no longer keep up,” Edling told The Observer, adding, “We love it, but we’re older.” She pointed out that she has spent 20 years and Szatko 30 years as active trustees, and both are ready to focus on other volunteer work now that they are retired.
Much of the work when someone is buried involves being onsite and available to facilitate for the family, the funeral home, and the grave digger. “There aren’t enough [trustees] who are able to do the work, who have time to do the work and who live in close enough proximity to the cemetery,” Edling said.
If the independent cemetery association, which was incorporated by the Red Church, is dissolved, the seven-acre burial ground on Route 9G would be turned over by law to the town for management.
According to the NYS Department of State Division of Cemeteries spokesperson Edison Alban this is an increasingly common phenomenon. “Many cemeteries under our jurisdiction are being operated by volunteers well into their 60s, 70s and even some 80s,” he told The Observer, adding that in the past 10 years, “91 cemeteries have been taken over by towns, averaging nine per year.”
Rhinebeck Cemetery was turned over to the Town of Rhinebeck in 2002. According to current bookkeeper Shelly Day, who was employed by the town at that time, all the cemetery association trustees continued as members of the initial cemetery committee, which smoothed the transition.
Still, Day told The Observer, “It was definitely challenging at times; I couldn’t find another town in the county that had taken over a cemetery, so figuring out the roles and also the finances was difficult.”
Rhinebeck Cemetery Committee Chair Suzanne Kelly confirmed that Rhinebeck employs a cemetery caretaker and that the town, aided by an oversight committee, handles all the plot reservations and maintenance. However, Alban said that towns are only required at the minimum to trim the grass in cemeteries they take over and allow access for plot owners; the town can decide whether it wishes to continue selling plots and perform burials.
A non-profit cemetery such as Red Church collects a fee for plot and cemetery maintenance, which must by law be invested. Maintenance costs are then paid out of the interest generated.
At one time the cemetery association employed a caretaker. “The guy we had was really good,” Szatko said, “but because of all this nonsense with dealing with worker’s compensation insurance and income tax, it was a mess.” She added that it has been difficult for the association to find a part-time independent contractor with the skill to maintain a cemetery.
According to Edling, who runs the finances, paying for maintenance won’t be a problem for the next caretakers. “The town truly is just taking over, everything is set up,” she said, adding that there is enough money in the investment accounts to cover perpetual maintenance. Szatko agreed and thought that a town’s trained employees would be able to handle the paperwork and finances with more ease.
If the cemetery association dissolves, the cemetery would be considered “abandoned” and the town would take over maintenance. According to Kelly, Red Hook could then form a committee that would continue the work without many of the restrictions placed on non-profit cemetery associations by the state.
“Towns have to take over cemeteries, but they don’t have to continue to run them. The town may take it over, but they could also close it and just do minimum maintenance… forever,” Kelly said, adding, “It’s been wonderful that the town of Rhinebeck has been so willing to take over upkeep, they’ve been extremely supportive [of our committee’s efforts].
Edling and Szatko hope that if Red Hook takes over the cemetery, its involvement would help inspire new volunteers to get involved with the maintenance of the almost 250-year-old site. The cemetery was originally owned by a Dutch Reformed congregation, which erected the Red Church around 1766, when its books were officially opened.
“It is a beautiful view,” Szatko said.
Edling and Szatko estimated that approximately one third of the cemetery is still open for burial plots.
Requests for comment from Red Hook town officials were not returned by press time.