From The Ground Up

By Randy Gaddo
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / dinhhang

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

One of the surprising things I learned soon after getting into the field of parks and recreation was that many departments were responsible for the maintenance and/or operations of local cemeteries.

At first, I had trouble making the connection. In my naïve, new-guy world, parks and rec took care of activities for the living; cemeteries—well, they just didn’t fit into the picture, except in movies such as Beetlejuice where the deceased were very active.

As I thought about preparing this column for the December issue, I must have dozed off and was visited by the “Ghost of Maintenance Past.” He showed me that every city, county, state, and even federal governments that have public cemeteries must make decisions on tasking maintenance and operations, and in some places, parks and rec gets the nod for after-life care.

A Case Study
So I searched and found that Boston is one such place. The Cemetery Division of the Parks and Rec Department is responsible for providing burial services for city residents. The division manages burial records for more than 250,000 gravesites and maintains approximately 300 acres of cemetery land.

There are three active cemeteries owned and operated by the city’s parks and recreation department. “Active” means they are open for business, and residents can inter their deceased loved ones there.

Boston also owns and maintains 16 “historic” cemeteries; these are closed, full to capacity but open for tourists—not to be buried, but to wander through and absorb the American heritage that graces them. These cemeteries hold the remains of many historical figures, such as Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and many more. If those headstones could talk, the history they could unfold!

“Our historic cemeteries are a huge draw for tourists and an integral part of the New England tourist industry,” explains Tom Sullivan, General Superintendent of Cemeteries in the Boston Parks and Rec Department. Sullivan is directly responsible for maintaining the active cemeteries and through an arrangement with a public/private group, also helps with basic maintenance of the historical sites.

With A Little Help
The city’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative (HBGI) is a public/private cooperative program established within the parks and recreation department and dates to the early 1970s.

Kelly Thomas is program manager for HBGI. “The Cemetery Division, which is based at one of the active cemeteries, Mt.Hope, performs basic maintenance at our 16 historic sites, such as mowing grass, edging, blowing sidewalks, and picking up leaves and branches,” she says. “They do all the general maintenance at the three active cemeteries as well, and those cemeteries are very historic in their own right—one of them was opened in the 19 th century.”

Beyond basic maintenance, HGBI hires private contractors for the sites. In this arrangement, Thomas is under the parks and rec department but in a separate unit—Design and Construction—from Sullivan, who is under the Cemetery Division. Thomas has a separate budget for outsourced maintenance. “We bring in outside contractors for some of the more specialized maintenance requirements,” she notes.

Bearing The Load
Although maintaining a cemetery is similar to maintaining a regular park, there are some significant differences and obstacles that a maintenance crew must tackle.

“Grass has to be mowed, flower beds weeded and planted, and of course trash and debris cleared,” describes Sullivan, who served 10 years as the city’s parks and rec superintendent of park maintenance before his current assignment. “What sticks out as different is the incredible amount of weed-whacking we have to do in and around the 100,000 gravestones under our care,” he elaborates, boggling the mind with the enormity of that task.

Sullivan adds that Mother Nature can be an obstacle, especially for actual burials, which also fall under the Cemetery Division’s cognizance.

“Heavy snowfall makes burials very difficult, especially when we have numerous burials on the same day, which is the norm here,” he comments, noting that regardless of the weather, the burials must be done. “Frozen ground needs to be opened and the burial prepared, regardless of the weather,” he declares, adding, “We also have to ensure safe travel for the family motorcade.”

To accomplish these tasks, Sullivan’s division has 35 staff members to maintain the hundreds of acres of cemetery land. They must keep up with a significant fleet of riding- and walk-behind mowers, as well as assorted blowers, weed-eaters, leaf vacuums, and other grounds-maintenance tools. In addition, large back hoes and dump trucks are used to open and close grave sites.

Secrets For Success
Like any other 21 st -century parks and rec maintenance department, Sullivan’s wrestles with limited staff and budget to get the job done. He has to be imaginative to be successful.

“I am working on creating a strong list of volunteers and advocates to help us sustain our mission,” he states.  “Veterans’ groups and many of our residents have a real love for history, and they are becoming more and more important.  I am on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Cemetery Association ( ) and a member of the New England Cemetery Association ( ).”

These associations provide focused information and resources that can help a maintenance manager who is tasked with professional care of cemeteries, which can have a significant public benefit. The Massachusetts association, a non-profit organization, promotes knowledge in the operation and maintenance of the state’s cemeteries. It facilitates an exchange of information and secures the advantages of mutual cooperation. The New England association does much the same on a wider scale. “Belonging to groups such as these has proven invaluable to me,” Sullivan affirms.

I found that most states have similar organizations, so a quick Internet search should provide resources for those who might need guidance in this area, or perhaps you’re just interested in an aspect that isn’t always experienced by parks and rec pros.

Part Of The Community
Cemeteries in towns tend to be part of the community and just as with parks, the condition of a site can often be reflective of the community.  If the grounds are messy, overgrown, and neglected, the surrounding homes may soon take on the same character.  Home values can be impacted.  That is not lost on the Boston cemetery staff.

“The benefit of a local entity maintaining its own cemeteries is the pride that we can instill,” Sullivan insists. “The staff here truly strives to ensure that all our cemeteries, active or historic, are clean, safe, and attractive. We want the grieving families, residents, and the many thousands of tourists who visit our sacred grounds each year to feel proud of them.”

Sullivan works to ensure that cemeteries are part of community celebrations: placing more than 25,000 small flags at veterans’ gravestones on Memorial Day; illuminating a 20-foot holiday wreath atop Mt.HopeChapelBellTower each year: and planting 10,000 tulip bulbs each fall. “The residents of Boston know that their public cemeteries are cared for, maintained, and loved,” he assures.

Boston is one of many cities, counties or other public or public/private organizations that are responsible for cemeteries. Some cities are large like Boston, with a population of more than 600,000; others are small towns such as Bozeman, Mont., with a population of 40,000, whose parks and rec, and cemetery department has one cemetery to care for—Sunset Cemetery—where many local notables are buried, including the town’s namesake, John Bozeman.

Cemeteries can have a significant impact on local and regional life. The National Parks Service publishes guidelines for evaluating cemeteries and burial places that are being considered for National Register eligibility. “A cemetery may represent a variety of important aspects of an area’s early settlement and evolving sense of community.”

When looked at in this way, it makes sense that cemetery maintenance and/or operations can fall under parks and rec departments, which exist to foster a sense of community.

So are there any parks and rec cemeterians (yes, that is a word—I looked it up) who have insight into this subject?  I’d love to hear from you, and I think readers would, too. I’ll bet there’s someone out there who has a good “Ghost of Christmas” maintenance story!

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .