When the Shandaken Rural Cemetery was established in 1897, gravesites cost about $10 each. Townspeople purchased lots, but some owners never got around to using them, as family members moved away and were buried elsewhere.
“It turns out that cemetery law says if no one is buried on a site for 75 years, the plot can be sold to someone else,” said Shandaken town clerk Joyce Grant. And given that the cemetery has only six unsold plots on the books, Grant is starting the required procedure for reselling the vacant sites.
The cemetery has historically been used by Protestants and is located across Route 28 from the Catholic cemetery, a few miles west of Phoenicia. About 1330 people are buried on the 3.6 acres of the Protestant graveyard, which was taken over by the Town of Shandaken in 2015, as the board of residents in charge said they could no longer administer the cemetery. Responsibility for overseeing the property fell to Grant, who promptly set about recruiting volunteers to cut back weeds and maintain the land. A voracious organizer of data, she also went through the cemetery records, which had been established long before the digital age.
“Every time someone called to find a grave or bury a family member,” she explained, “we had to find the name on an index card in an alphabetical file, which shows the lot number. The box was so moldy when we got it, I had to put the cards in a new box.”
Lots are composed of eight graves, and entire lots could be bought at a discount. (In the 1960s, graves were $25 each, but you could get a lot of eight for $150, a savings of $50.) However, some of the graves in a given lot were never used. Each lot had its own card, showing which gravesites were occupied and the names of the occupants.
The lot number had to be found on one of three section maps, the most detailed set dating from 1931. In Section One, the oldest section, Grant puzzled over the numbering system until she realized the numbers began along the central pathway, odd numbers on the left, even ones on the right. Graves that were occupied had shading on the maps, making the tiny numbers even harder to read. In frustration, Grant redid the maps by hand.
The new maps are larger in scale, two maps per section, with room to write the names of the grave occupants. The six maps, laid end to end, stretch 17 feet, and pdf’s of all six are also accessible through the town website. The two sets of index cards have been merged in a database that reveals each individual’s lot number, grave number, and date of interment (if it was recorded), available through a quick lookup by the town clerk’s office.
As a result of organizing the data and the maps, Grant noticed a surprising amount of unused land in the cemetery. Ministers often took plots and then were transferred out of the area. In some cases, an individual reserved a plot but never paid for it. “No one’s buried there, and we didn’t find a deed,” said Grant. “Unless the family comes forward with a deed, we can sell the plot.” Grant estimates 100 to 200 gravesites may become available. Today individual plots cost $400 each.
Selling vacant plots will not only help finance maintenance of the cemetery but will also temporarily solve the problem of lack of space for burials. First, however, Grant has to bring the gravedigger to each of the empty graves — that is, those purchased before 1942 — and he will sink a long rod into the ground to make sure there is no burial vault on the site. Then she will try to contact the families who are recorded as buyers of the plots. She has to publish the names of the owners in the newspaper and invite them to assert their claim with a deed to the property. If no one responds, the town can sell the plot.
Meanwhile, she has been researching possibilities for expansion of the cemetery. With the town assessor’s parcel identification software, which provides aerial views of the town, she has discovered eight parcels of open land along Route 28 that could be usable for burials. At some point, the landowners will be contacted about the possibility of selling their property to the town. Meanwhile, Grant invites anyone with spare land near the highway to check in with her office. “If they sell us the land,” she said, “maybe we’ll name the new cemetery after them!”
To view the new Shandaken Rural Cemetery maps, visit http://www.shandaken.us/about-2/shandaken-rural-cemetery/. Call the town clerk’s office at 845-688-5004 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to locate a particular grave or to purchase a gravesite.