The New Paltz Rural Cemetery, tucked away down Water Street on Plains Road against a backdrop of the Shawangunk Mountains, has a private, contemplative feel appropriate for an historic resting ground established in February of 1861, just months before the outbreak of the Civil War. It’s a very pretty site that feels steeped in tradition, with its numerous upright headstones, some aged to the point the names are nearly illegible. The 32-acre cemetery holds the remains of more than 7,500 people, whose surviving family members living in New Paltz today can take comfort in visiting their loved ones in a place that feels very peaceful.
But for some local families who have loved ones interred there, it hasn’t been feeling all that respectful to them lately.
The Vitarius family owns 24 plots in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, according to Shan Vitarius, 44. His grandfather is buried there, as is his father, Fred Vitarius, a longtime New Paltz highway superintendent, first assistant fire chief, Boy Scout troop leader and proud veteran of the U.S. Navy who served three tours in Vietnam.
Over the years, Vitarius family members have placed a number of mementos on graves and headstones in the cemetery in tribute to their loved ones. Some items honored military service, like the small American flag on the grave of Fred Vitarius. Others were whimsical, like a bobble-headed toy left by Shan’s young daughter on the day of her grandfather’s burial, and some of the items were irreplaceable, like the handmade birdhouse made by Shan’s uncle left at Fred’s grave site.
All of the items were left in areas that didn’t interfere with mowing or maintenance, Shan says, placed on either headstones or in a mulched area next to the family plots. For as long as he can remember, he says, at least since his father’s burial in 2011, those items have never been touched. But when his mother, Myrtle Vitarius, went to her late husband’s grave recently on the 50th anniversary of their wedding, she was shocked and upset to find that all of the items placed in Fred’s memory had been removed without any prior notice given.
The family asked the cemetery caretaker, John Liquori, why their items had been removed and discarded without notice. Shan says the caretaker told them it wasn’t his idea, and that the board felt the cemetery was looking too cluttered, so the staff was asked to clear everything out.
A call to Liquori from this newspaper asking for comment went unreturned.
The cemetery is a not-for-profit 501(c) corporation run by a volunteer board of seven trustees who provide oversight and set policy. Shan says he has good relationships with several of the trustees — relationships that go back years — and knows all of them to be “good people,” so he e-mailed them to ask why the items were taken. Only one board member responded, he says, who expressed dismay and offered the date of the cemetery board’s next meeting.
A request for comment by this newspaper to the board president went unanswered.
The Vitarius family also contacted local officials and got “caring and respectful” responses from New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers, County Executive Mike Hein and Ulster County Legislature’s Kenneth Ronk and Hector Rodriguez, but all of them noted that there was nothing they could do about the situation, Shan says.
The biggest disappointment to the family is that there was no advanced notice and no chance to reclaim items. When Myrtle Vitarius went to the town recycling center hoping to find the items there — especially the small American flag from her husband’s grave — she was further distressed to find out the items had been trashed, Shan says, even though American flags are supposed to be disposed of properly (the flag code suggests burning or burial, and American Legion posts provide the service at no charge).
Shan says the family has received a number of calls from other families who also had American flags taken off of graves. “This isn’t just about my father and grandparents, it’s about the whole cemetery. I can’t tell you how many people have contacted us who feel the same way about their stuff being taken.”
But more than anything, he adds, it’s not even that the items were taken, but that there was no notice or opportunity given to retrieve the items themselves before they were disposed of.
“All they needed to do was to put up a simple sign at the entrance giving people advance notice of a cleanup date so they could remove items. And in this day of social media, you have town Facebook pages with thousands of people looking at them, we have a local newspaper… if they wanted to get rid of stuff, that’s fine, but those things meant something to us and we didn’t want them thrown away.”
The website for the New Paltz Rural Cemetery states that the Cemetery Association “reserves the right to remove all items deemed unsightly or dangerous.” It’s not clear, however, whether this rule was already in place or has been added recently. The website also states that the following items are not allowed: glass or ceramic containers or objects, in-ground plantings or artificial or silk flowers.
A recent drive through the cemetery prior to publication of this article found a cemetery mostly stripped of personal items, but there were plastic flowers in evidence and several mementos visible at gravesites.
Shan says he doesn’t know whether or not the items have been added since the cemetery was cleared out or if the staff stopped removing items because of complaints from people. But adding fire to the fuel was that in the initial clearing out, not everybody had items removed from family graves, he says, including graves belonging to at least one member of the board. “If you’re going to have rules, they should apply to everybody. If you think the cemetery looks shabby, put a sign up and say ‘take your stuff out’ or it’ll be disposed of; that’s fine. Not one of my family has an issue with that. But our biggest point is, why no warning? Put a sign up… it’s such an easy thing.”