NEW IPSWICH — Something happened in the 1980s that caused the cemetery trustees to start allowing graves in Smithville Cemetery to be built alongside a dam on the Souhegan River, but no one is quite sure what. Now town officials are trying to put pieces of the puzzle together to find out if the graves are on town-owned land or land acquired by the state.
Recently, selectmen were told by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services that the town has been allowing graves to be placed on land that is either owned or under easement to the state, according to DES Dam Bureau Chief Jim Gallagher. The land, which abuts the cemetery on two sides and isn’t separated by any visible barrier from the rest of the cemetery, was set aside as a place for staging heavy equipment in case the dam needs serious reconstruction.
But since 1989, the town has been burying people and selling cemetery plots on the land the state claims to have rights to, said Cemetery Sextant Oliver Niemi, but nobody quite knows why.
“Something happened in the 1980s so that the cemetery trustees felt comfortable burying people in that area,” he said. But that piece of the puzzle remains a mystery.
“I remember a discussion about the state giving the land back to the town, but I can’t remember the details or when that discussion happened,” said Niemi.
Selectman George Lawrence, who has served as a cemetery trustee, said he recalls some confusion over who had rights to the land, but can’t remember how the question was settled. And because the issue was raised for the first time in recent weeks, town officials haven’t been able to trace their steps back to the 1980s to find the necessary documentation.
Niemi said his grandfather owned the land in question for years before selling it to his father, but in 1964, the state took the property by eminent domain for flood control. In 1965 or ’66, the dam was built to keep the spring floodwaters on the west branch of the Souhegan River from causing problems downstream, Niemi said. The cemetery has been part of New Ipswich since colonial times and it’s rumored that Ebenezer Fletcher, one of the town’s founding fathers who escaped capture by the British, is buried in the older part of the cemetery.
What baffles Niemi and Lawrence is that the state has been down to the dam every year, at least once a year, as long as anyone can remember and the issue of the gravesites wasn’t raised until this spring.
“We took out a grove of pine trees on the land the state says they own about five or six years ago and the state never even noticed it,” said Niemi. “You’d think that if there was a problem with the graves, the state would have said something before now.”
Niemi said he hopes the town and the state can come to some agreeable solution short of having to move the estimated 70 to 80 graves that have been established on the land claimed by the state. Gallagher said Friday that the Dam Bureau is just beginning its study of the situation and while he said it’s possible that graves might have to be moved, other solutions will be weighed first.
Niemi, whose parents and grandparents are buried in the cemetery, clearly in town-owned land, said people are concerned but everyone he’s spoken with is waiting to see what happens.
“Let’s get all the facts together first,” he said.
But as sextant, he worries about how expensive it could be for the town to have to move any of the graves.
“It’s $500 every time we open up a grave,” he said. “It would cost us double to have to move and rebury someone.”