The Munson Cemetery, located off Route 7 in Colchester, is now more than an acre larger thanks to a donation from local benefactors.
Glen Cuttitta, director of the Colchester Parks and Recreation department, said Bobby and Holly Miller donated the land as construction on the nearby McClure-Miller Respite House began.
“[Bobby Miller] was very amenable and took it the extra mile,” Cuttitta said.
The Millers also provided funding for a three-sided black metal fence, worth $22,000. Trees and shrubbery mark the fourth side of the plot.
Munson is the latest town cemetery to get a makeover. Renovations at the Malletts Bay Cemetery were completed late last summer after a 2014 charter change moved control of the six public cemeteries to the parks and recreation department.
The new charter also stipulated a change for the then-elected cemetery commissioner slots, creating an appointed advisory committee with up to seven members.
The previously elected commissioners Joyce Sweeney, Coralie Magoon and Theresa Carroll were joined by appointees Wanda Morin, Doug McSweeney and Pam Loranger, who chairs the commission.
Cuttitta said his department and the new commission were systematically working through the town’s cemeteries and focusing their energy on those most in need of repair when they learned about the Millers’ generosity.
“The Munson Cemetery wasn’t at the top of the list,” Cuttitta said. “But with the attention from the Millers, we kind of jumped it up.”
Loranger said the gift was an incredible surprise for the Cemetery Advisory Commission, but also presented an exciting new challenge. Nearly every other town cemetery is limited by spatial constraints, she explained, meaning the group almost always works around a set layout.
“They opened up a whole new venue for us to consider,” Loranger said. “To be able to do some planning opens up new opportunities.”
Now, Loranger said the commission is exploring modern touches for the Munson property. Memorial gardens top that list, Loranger said. She hopes to explore the possibility of hiring landscape architects to help them plan out the space.
“It’s invigorated us; it’s challenged us,” Loranger said. “Rather than just maintenance and restoration, how do we create something new and viable that may be more responsive to current needs and times?”
In this effort, the town clerk’s office has diligently worked to digitize plot information, Loranger said, moving data from index cards to a searchable online database.
Plot fees were increased last fiscal year to fund these increasingly necessary repairs, according to the town plan. Residents pay $600, non-residents $1,000 and veterans $450 for a spot in any public cemetery in town.
The commission has also worked to update and formalize rules and regulations for cemetery operations. A sign explaining cemetery rules at the Munson property is forthcoming, Loranger said.
“Everybody comes with a lot of enthusiasm and dedication, and we’re just getting started,” she said. “It will give us opportunity to explore an area that we had not done before.”
In addition to the free land, the Munson Cemetery boasts another unique feature – nearly all of the headstones feature birth and death dates in the mid 1800s.
Walking through the cemetery, Loranger pointed out American flags she helped place at veteran tombstones earlier in the year. Markers show many were soldiers in the Civil War. A few fought even earlier in the War of 1812.
A gravestone for Col. William D. Munson, a Civil War veteran, sits in the middle of the cemetery in surprisingly good condition. An inscribed dedication, dated 1906, lauds his leadership in a battle at Gettysburg in 1863.
“He participated with the Regiment in the deadly assault on the flank of the Confederate charging columns,” the tomb reads, “bravely doing his full duty in that terrible hour, which turned the tide of battle at the point since called ‘the high water mark of the rebellion.’
“This tablet is placed here by the comrades of the 13th Regiment,” the message continues, “as a token of their respect for him as an officer and their affection for him as a man.”
Others are in less than stellar condition. Some slabs are stacked in piles, the old stone crumbling under its own weight. Still others are covered in moss, making them nearly impossible to read.
Loranger would like to see these relics restored, but limited resources will likely make that task challenging.
“[We will] hopefully have a plan that comes together that is new and old, integrated,” Loranger said.
Another thought struck Loranger as she watched landscapers plant small pine trees along a new wooden fence encircling the Respite House.
“It kind of puts the pressure on to do a really good job and improve what’s here,” she said.