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Cemetery riverbed inching towards gravesites

The Connecticut River encroaches on the Northumberland Town Cemetery in this overhead shot. Armstrong-Charron Funeral Home Director Terri Charron and Town Administrative Assistant Becky Craggy are two of the local citizens dedicated to solving the erosion of the riverbank before it further affects the cemetery’s gravesites. (click for larger version)
July 21, 2010
NORTHUMBERLAND — Terri Charron, Northumberland resident and local funeral home director, is leading the crusade to save the riverbank abutting the town cemetery from further deteriorating and threatening the resting places of the cemetery's citizens.

"Back in the 60s, the Wyoming Dam at the Guildhall entrance went out. Since then, we have been losing riverbank," explained Ms. Charron. The loss totals approximately 65 feet. She has been begging the audience of local and state officials ever since she moved to town and began working with her parents at the Armstrong-Charron Funeral Home 21 years ago.

"I don't want to see people I have buried floating downstream," said a frustrated Ms. Charron. "It's a health hazard. It's an environmental hazard. It's wrong in every way you can imagine."

The cemetery has had to move 26 caskets in the past 20 years because the deteriorating riverbank has threatened their resting places. Ms. Charron has had to supervise the transplant of eight in recent years. Aside from the emotional cost of such a project, is the monetary one. These past eight moves, said Ms. Charron, cost the town nearly $30,000 in labor, equipment, and to construct the cement burial vaults that became required after the early 80s. Five of the eight burial sites did not already have them. Additionally, these caskets were moved from an older part of the cemetery to the newest addition, land purchased from the Potter Farm. Unlike the older, free lots, these cost $150 each, another bill the town must foot.

This is not Ms. Charron's first cry for help.

"It's been in the newspapers. It's been on WMUR. It's been on the internet," she said. The issue has garnered some attention from candidates during election years, said Ms. Charron, but promises are broken and visions never realized once votes are cast and the dust settles.

Fortunately, Ms. Charron is not alone. At the onset of this project, roughly two years ago, Becky Newton was part of the cause. When Ms. Newton moved away, she passed the torch to Lana Gilcris. In the past year, the town's administrative assistant, Becky Craggy, has added an efficient pair of hands to the cause. All of these women work to solve this project on their own time and on their own dollar.

"I'm glad to do it because we're residents of this community," said Ms. Craggy. "I just wish I had 40 hours a week to commit to this."

"Becky [Newton] and Terri started about 2 years ago just diving in and trying to find whatever we could apply for," said Ms. Craggy. The group has applied for three grants. The first, from the FEMA Prehazard Mitigation Fund, looked promising. The fund originally promised the town $1.5 million for the project before reducing it to $1.3 million a couple months later. Another few months following that, the grant was dropped to under $1 million to keep the money out of congressional hands. Ms. Charron and Ms. Newton went around the region, finding local residents to make up for the difference in projected cost and grant money.

"We had the logging companies and local residents who own large amounts of forested land who were willing to give their trees and transport," said Ms. Charron. This whole process took less than six months, at which time they were told by FEMA that the funds were no longer there.

The second grant applied for was the New Hampshire State Conservation Grant, part of the Conservation Number Plate Program that gathers its funds through the sale of license plates with moose on them.

The cemetery riverbank project most recently lost out on some Aquatic Resource Mitigation (ARM) funds last month to The Nature Conservancy who is investing in floodplain forest restoration in Northumberland. "I felt that our project would have been benefiting our residents more diversely," said a disappointed Ms. Craggy of the loss of the grant to The Nature Conservancy. Still, the two are not losing hope. "For me, and I know Terri is the same way, it just makes us more resolved."

The cemetery was not awarded the funds mainly because ARM deemed the engineering behind their solution to the problem experimental and therefore questionable. The solution was proposed by Dr. John Field, of Field Geology Services in Farmington, Maine. Mr. Fields conducted research on the cemetery for the Connecticut Joint Rivers Commission in 2005. He found that the instability of the riverbank was a result of the breaching of the Old Wyoming and Nash Stream Bog dams, and the resulting development of a sandbar at the meeting of the Ammonoosuc and Connecticut rivers. Dr. Field proposed the construction of a logjam at the base of the cemetery bank "to buttress the bank from further failure, improve physical habitat, and restore natural processes to an area impacted by human land use for over 200 years," according to his January 2006 report.

The ARM grant was for $148,000 and would have funded the engineering and most of the trees for the project. The plan was to reapply for the remaining funds needed next year.

They plan to consult the North Country Council for assistance with the project, as well as reapply for all the grants they have previously applied to as well as any other relevant grants they may find, using their rejections as educational experiences that will hopefully help them find some money in the future. "There are funders out there. We just need to land on the right one."

Still, Ms. Charron and Ms. Craggy worry about skeptics who may think that, because this problem has been going on for so long without a solution, the issue may not be as critical as it seems.

"The need is still there. It's not going to go away," said Ms. Craggy. "When you have to move graves, it's become critical."

"It's one of those situations where, unless it affects your loved one, then you don't care," added Ms. Charron. "But, what people don't realize is that — unless we fix it — it is eventually going to affect everyone's loved one."

Littleton Chmber
Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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