Company offers free restoration work on cemeteries

Company offers free restoration work on cemeteries

But volunteers not happy about it

PAWTUCKET - This was supposed to be a final step toward finding the last of the missing buried dead. Instead, say volunteers, their ongoing recovery effort is trapped in a "quagmire" of city bureaucracy after a local company came in with a new plan.

Volunteers who have spent years digging up gravestones and restoring overgrown areas of the historic Mineral Spring Cemetery off Mineral Spring Avenue in Pawtucket were upset to learn last week that a city-based archaeology laboratory was volunteering to take the lead on the operation.

It wasn't that they don't want a long-term plan for the cemeteries, as offered by representatives for the Public Archaeology Laboratory, or that the cemeteries don't need the professional help, said volunteers, but they're not happy about being pushed aside when they were supposed to keep leading this effort.

Neither city officials nor representatives for PAL have shown much interest in leading the recovery effort of Mineral Spring Cemetery's lost and broken gravestones until now, said Ken Postle, the local Boy Scout leader who coordinates cemetery work with dozens of volunteers.

Postle said he was told by city officials in the spring to seek out companies interested in bringing "ground penetrating radar" to the Mineral Spring Cemetery to aid the search for the deepest gravestones, many of which have been lost for decades due to neglect.

The idea, Postle and fellow volunteer Bill Greenwood told the city's cemetery committee last week, was to find a company to complete a one-day survey of the ground so volunteers would know exactly where to dig for the stones.

This was supposed to be one of the final steps in finally giving those buried here, including many war veterans and historical figures, the honor they are owed.

Instead, said Postle, all work has now been put on hold after city officials jumped at a surprise offer from the Public Archaeology Laboratory to provide long-term services at both city-owned cemeteries, Mineral Spring and Walnut Hill, free of charge.

Craig Chartier and his Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project submitted a "wonderful proposal" to do the work in one day, as asked, said Postle, but Pawtucket-based PAL then approached city officials with an offer to conduct a long-term preservation and maintenance plan, which would put the company in an advisory capacity for a group of volunteers and city officials.

Although PAL officials have pledged to keep volunteers as an important part of the long-term restoration effort at the cemeteries, Postle and others said they feel like they've been cast aside in favor of the "professionals."

"I would appreciate hearing any information on why the city went ahead with retaining PAL as their cemetery consultant, why they are now directing this work and why the Department of Public Works is halting cleanup work," he said in an email this week.

Representatives for Mayor Don Grebien's administration denied that volunteers are being dismissed, or that work has been "halted." Dylan Zelazo, spokesman for Grebien, said that Public Works Director Lance Hill is seeking to uphold the city's obligation with the cemeteries on "multiple fronts," addressing all concerns in the process. Work has not been halted, said Zelazo, and officials "want the volunteers involved."

Members of the city cemetery committee said they felt bad that Postle was even involved in an informal bid process for the cemetery work, saying city officials should have instead sought legal bids through an official "request for proposal" process. Member John Barry III said that he and others on the committee will continue to value the "great work" by the volunteers, and will make sure they stay involved even as a long-term plan is put in place.

City Councilor Tim Rudd, a member of the cemetery committee and an advocate for the cemetery volunteers, said he was disappointed for Postle and the volunteers for how the situation was handled. Rudd pledged to make sure that volunteers are not pushed out. Though Postle and others have concerns that the penetrating radar will be pushed off for the foreseeable future, as PAL commences its study of the cemeteries, Rudd says he's been assured that the search operation is not far off.