By Terry Rogers
On October 3, Milford Community Cemetery Inc. held a workshop meeting with City officials and residents regarding the deteriorating stone fence on the Walnut Street side of the cemetery. At the meeting, Mark Whitfield, Director of Public Works for the City of Milford, explained that the current stone fence could not be repaired due to a failing foundation. Options were presented that included removing the fence completely, planting hedges or trees, adding a split rail fence or installing a wrought iron fence with brick pillars.
The cost for removing the wall and planting trees or grass ranged from $12,750 to $37,150. To install a split rail fence, the cost was $24,750 while sidewalks and curbs only would cost $157,850. The wrought iron fence with brick pillars was estimated to cost $212,500. The overwhelming option chosen by those in attendance was to remove the current wall and replace it with a wrought iron fence, although the cost seemed to be prohibitive. Several in attendance suggested that the pillars be removed and just a wrought iron fence be installed around the entire cemetery.
On October 27, the Cemetery Committee met to discuss the workshop. Brad Dennehy, Director of Parks and Recreation, reported that the chain link fence, which most residents felt was unattractive, had been removed along North Street as a litmus test to see how the public responded.
“We received a lot of calls,” Mr. Dennehy said. “People are passionate about this cemetery and it seems to be an overwhelming desire to have a uniform fence all the way around. They definitely do not like the split rail or “cow stall” fence as one resident at the meeting commented, but there is a definite desire that there be a fence around the cemetery.”
Mr. Dennehy reported that he had spoken to a fence company out of Felton about wrought iron fencing. He explained that what is now called “wrought iron” is actually aluminum that looks like old-fashioned wrought iron. The fence company provided him with a rough estimate of $83,500 for fencing for the entire cemetery, approximately 3,400 linear feet. The price did not include gates which cost between $950 and $1,500 each.
“Right now, there are 14 entrances into the cemetery,” Mr. Dennehy said. “We talked about closing some of those, which would bring the cost down. I’m not sure if we need actual gates, if we plan to close the cemetery after dark. But if adding gates could bring the cost up to about $90,000. The fence would similar to what surrounds Barratt’s Chapel Cemetery and that looks really nice.”
Scott Sipple, a member of the Cemetery Committee, said that before any entrances were closed, they would need to be reviewed very carefully as there was no way of knowing where a grave would need to be dug in the cemetery. Since the equipment used to dig graves is fairly large, it is difficult to back them in and out, so they prefer to pull in. This is also true of funerals where it could be difficult for those attending the funeral if they had to back out in order to leave. Councilman Owen Brooks, who was attending the meeting as a resident, said that as people get older, backing up becomes more difficult, agreeing that closure of any entrances needed to be reviewed carefully.
Mayor Bryan Shupe also pointed out that it might not be feasible to install gates that would close at night as “people grieve in different ways, at different times.” He felt that some people may want 24-hour access to their loved ones. Eric Norenberg, City Manager, also pointed out that people often use cemeteries for exercise as they are good places to walk.
“I know I’ve had people call me and complain that they went to visit the cemetery to find homeless people sleeping behind the wall,” Mr. Brooks said. “They can’t be seen from the road the way the wall is now. The open wrought iron fence would also make it easier for police if they are searching for someone as they would not have to go into the cemetery to search.”
Mr. Dennehy said that he would arrange a meeting at the cemetery with Mr. Sipple and the fence company to review entrances and determine the best course of action regarding the fence to report at the next meeting on January 17, 2018.
Mayor Bryan Shupe said that it was also important to note that the cemetery has a perpetual care fund that is to be used for the upkeep of the cemetery. Mr. Sipple explained that 10 percent of each lot purchased must be placed in the perpetual care fund per Delaware law. The fund has been in existence since the 1930s and care of the cemetery does not come out of the City budget, despite the fact that Parks and Recreation performs lawn maintenance. The Cemetery Fund reimburses the City for all expenses.
“We do need to be careful, however,” Mr. Norenberg said. “Those funds are there to care for the grounds in perpetuity, so we don’t want to deplete it too quickly. There have been some changes in how people handle burials in recent years, with more people opting for cremation or other methods after someone dies. This has led to a reduction in the number of gravesites purchased over the years.”
The Milford Community Cemetery began as an offshoot of the local Odd Fellows Lodge and was operated by the lodge until around 1990. For many years, the cemetery was known as the Odd Fellows Cemetery and a caretaker lived in the small brick house located next door. There is no longer an Odd Fellows Lodge locally and Mr. Sipple said he is the last living member of the Milford lodge.
“In the late 1980s, a few forward-thinking members of the board decided to seek legal help and incorporate the cemetery separate from the lodge,” Mr. Sipple said. “We reached out to the state lodge board who approved the transfer and the Milford Community Cemetery was born. The Milford lodge disbanded soon after. Not long after that, a new state board came to claim all the property owned by the Milford lodge, claiming that under the charter if a lodge disbanded, the state lodge took ownership of all property. At the time, our perpetuity fund had over $600,000 and the cemetery was around 23 acres. When we refused to turn it over, they sued in Chancery Court.”
Mr. Sipple explained that the former local lodge members spent several years in Chancery Court and were successful with the case, but the state lodge appealed to the local Supreme Court. When the Community Cemetery won the appeal, the state lodge appealed to the State Supreme Court. Although that appeal was also denied, the entire matter cost the local cemetery over $125,000 in legal fees.
Today, the Cemetery Committee must include four City officials and three residents who own lots in the cemetery. Currently, the Mayor, City Manager, Director of Parks and Recreation as well as a Council member service on the committee. After the passing of one of the members of the committee last year, there is an opening for someone who owns a lot in the cemetery to join the committee.
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