HARVARD -- It was standing room only at Monday's Cemetery Commission meeting in the one-room office building at Bellevue Cemetery. It was the commission's first meeting since Hurricane Sandy blew through town.
Three Norway Spruce trees were uprooted at Bellevue, though there was no gravestone damage. The lack of large trees in the town center cemetery helped prevent damage there.
But not so at the historic Shaker Cemetery on South Shaker Road, where a massive pine tree snapped mid trunk during the height of the storm and fell atop rows of cast iron so-called "lollypop" style Shaker grave markers. The shattered remains of two markers sat in a box for viewing.
Shaker historian Roben Campbell has studied the cemetery's history and handed out a list of the names and dates of death for the seven affected graves. Campbell counted two markers shattered into multiple pieces, four markers broken into two pieces, and one marker that was separated from its ground post.
"I don't have all the splintered pieces," said Campbell. The tree remains toppled across the graves.
The tree was one of eight that have been banded with yellow ribbon and targeted for removal by the commission this winter. The Harvard Boy Scouts have been enlisted to help remove and stack the markers on pallets and mark the graves with numbered wooden stakes. The commission hopes to temporarily store the markers offsite at the public works barn on Depot Road.
Though there are several stone markers, Campbell said the Shaker Cemetery is unique in that it is the only known surviving Shaker cemetery with lollypop markers. When the last person was buried in the Shaker Cemetery in 1929, records show there were 319 grave markers there.
Today, some 240 lollypop markers survive, and 79 have been powder coated. None of the treated markers were broken in the storm.
To get the trees removed, "We're going to need cranes," said Cemetery Commission Chairman Bruce Dolimont. "We cannot physically get in there and do it ourselves" with public works crews and equipment.
Shaun Bilodeau of Harvard was the low bidder at $11,500 which includes crane work and stump grinding. Selectman Ron Ricci suggested the commission ensure the bid, entered earlier this year, is still valid. Bilodeau has indicated the time to move is when the ground freezes (in about three week's time) but before snow accumulates.
The question remains how to position a crane to fell the trees. Dropping the trees with chainsaws has been ruled out.
"If you cut those trees, you don't know which way they fall," said Spero. "You've got to have control."
Putting a crane inside the graveyard could cause a cave in. "Those graves have no vault. It's just ground and decayed bodies," said Dolimont. "You have to be careful with that on the land and stay within certain areas without damaging any of the surrounding areas."
But the cemetery is surrounded by conservation land, possibly complicating any attempt to position a crane outside of the cemetery's rock walls. Historical Commission member Joe Theriault offered to inquire about the idea with the Harvard Conservation Commission and gauge whether the commission would permit clearing within 25 feet of the cemetery wall to prevent future tree damage.
Dolimont believes the massive pine trees were not planted by the Shakers. "Now that we had this damage, we might as well try to restore to what conceptually we think there was -- a nice empty field- and get them out because they're going to keep on falling."
Campbell agreed, and said a Shaker Cemetery she visited in Alfred, Maine was "totally cleared of trees." Otherwise, the layout was "identical to Harvard...the middle is free of trees. It looked beautiful." The Alfred cemetery has just one common monument, instead of individual grave markers.
Harvard's markers are largely intact, but Campbell said that's not the case in other Shaker cemeteries.
"There are incredible stories of a farmer buying limestone markers at one Shaker village in Ohio and how he ground it all up and used it for fertilizer," said Campbell. Markers from another Ohio Shaker cemetery were storage "where they stand to this day." Elsewhere, makers tend to "break and get ground over, and a generation or two later they don't even look like a cemetery anymore." Single-stone markers can be found at the Shaker cemetery on the Shirley prison grounds.
Historical Commission Chair Ken Swanton shared word of an email sent by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and FEMA, advising of public funds for storm-affected municipal and non-profit historic properties.
Swanton rued the fact that an article seeking $11,500 from the Community Preservation Fund for the removal of the eight trees was passed over at Annual Town Meeting this spring.
"If that passed, those trees would have come down by now," said Swanton. "We supported your proposal."
But this summer, town counsel advised the commission that it could use its perpetual care account to remove the trees in the Shaker Cemetery. "We'd like to keep those funds for the original intent," said Dolimont, "But town counsel said we could use the money to take the trees down."
A third of the purchase price of burial plots -- now valued at $650 each -- finances the perpetual care fund, said Spero. The town took title to the Shaker Cemetery in the 1950s, long after the last burial occurred. Spero said the use of the perpetual care fund is controversial because the funds grew due to burials in town-owned cemeteries.
"I couldn't miss the picture on the front page of the paper," said Swanton. "I went over and looked Saturday morning. It could have been worse. Fortunately the tree seemed to fall between many of them. I was amazed how many didn't have a direct hit."
"When you look at the debris you say 'oh my God," agreed Campbell.
Swanton said the Shaker Cemetery is "the best preserved Shaker lollypop cemetery in the world."
"The only one," added Campbell.
"We want to work together. We're all volunteers for the town. We're really concerned people in town that want to do things," said Dolimont.
"That's why the three of us are here," said Swanton, who was joined by fellow Historical Commission members Theriault and Rhonda Sprague.
But Ricci suggested involving Town Administrator Tim Bragan on relief applications. "Tim took the lead," on the 2008 ice storm FEMA applications, said Ricci. "If it was left to volunteers, we'd still be talking about it."