After voting in March 2016 to continue allowing people to walk their dogs on cemetery grounds as long as they were leashed, the trustees of Spring Grove Cemetery changed course in August and voted to ban dogs entirely.
The trustees contend that dogs are disruptive, destructive and hazardous, and say the cemetery is no place for them. Meanwhile many in the community are devastated by the decision, and feel a ban is excessive, including those who have been walking in the cemetery for decades and consider the land sacred to both the living and dead.
“It’s a very spiritual place,” said James Greer of Spring Grove Road, who has been walking dogs in the cemetery for the past 25 years. “It’s beautiful and serene, and a very lovely experience.”
Michael Roberts, a physician who has lived on Spring Grove Road for the past two decades, agreed.
“It’s beautiful, it’s meditative, and in a town where there are very few sidewalks it’s one of the few places where you can walk without keeping an eye on the traffic,” he said.
Roberts and his wife, Jane, who visit the cemetery “essentially every day,” say the number of people one might see on any given day is small, and “when we do see a person it’s usually a cemetery worker.”
That's one reason dog owners don't agree with the outright ban.
“It’s not like dogs are running wild through there,” said Scott Israel, who has lived on Abbott Street for the past three decades. As to whether dog waste is an issue Israel said, “People pick up after their dogs.”
Greer and Roberts agree.
“In the last thousand times we’ve been in the cemetery we’ve seen pet waste on the ground zero,” Roberts said.
Trustees: Urine on gravestones
But Sandra Dearborn, chairwoman of the Spring Grove Cemetery Board of Trustees, disagrees.
She said in an interview Sunday evening that dogs barking during funerals, and urinating and defecating on graves has been a problem for years and has only gotten worse.
“I’ve been on the board for over 10 years and I can tell you there have been some issues that have come up,” Dearborn said. She added, “The very first headstone when you walk in, pretty much every dog that walks in urinates on that headstone, and you can’t clean up urine. Some of those headstones are over 100 years old.”
The Board of Trustees met with several dog walkers in February 2016. According to minutes from that meeting, Dianne DeLucia opened the discussion, saying she and other dog walkers are “interested and willing to be part of the solution” to the problem of unleashed dogs.
She said she believed the dog walkers have served as a set of “eyes and ears when the cemetery staff are not present,” and that in the past they have called authorities to report questionable behavior. The idea that dog walkers serve as stewards of the cemetery is widely shared. Some say they have reported issues to cemetery staff and the police; James Greer makes a point of picking up litter and has spoken directly to those not observing leash by-laws.
The practice of bringing dogs into the cemetery off-leash is roundly condemned by dog walkers, who state that once signs enforcing existing leash by-laws went up, this behavior, infrequent to begin with, came to an end. Asked about these claims, Dearborn responded: “I would say that’s not true,” and that, “dogs urinating and defecating on graves, they do that whether they’re on a leash or not. And barking and disrupting funerals happens whether they’re on a leash or not.”
At the February meeting, other ideas were raised in an attempt to reach a compromise, including posting a notice at the gate when a funeral is in progress. The trustees then met privately for about an hour after dismissing the dog walkers.
Dearborn and Trustee William Canane went on record at that time as being opposed to allowing dogs in the cemetery at all, with Dearborn saying, “her responsibility is to the families of the deceased and not the dog walkers.”
In many cases, these families are one and the same. James Greer’s father is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery and Michael Roberts has family there as well. Both Greer and Roberts have purchased plots for themselves and their wives, and Roberts said that after he and his wife have passed, “We would be delighted to have people walking dogs there.” According to several who live in the neighborhood, those who come to the cemetery for the purpose of visiting a gravesite often bring their dogs.
In March, the trustees met again, and following a “sometimes heated” discussion voted 3-2 in favor of allowing dogs in the cemetery.
Sandra Dearborn led the opposition, joined by William Canane, who asked to go on record that he believed during the debate he had been “accused of being a bully.” Following this meeting Robert Goodwin resigned from the Board, and Jack Bigelow said he was stepping down as chair, with Sandra Dearborn voted into the position in April. Both Goodwin and Bigelow had voted with the majority in March. In May, the Board welcomed Richard Morrissey as their newest member. Throughout several meetings that summer the only mention of dogs in the cemetery came from Morrissey, who reported in June that he had seen a dog urinating on a headstone “just the other day.”
Sign of the times
Board member Gail Ralston raised the issue again in August. Ralston had voted in March to allow dogs, and expressed her support privately in correspondence with the dog walkers.
“I would much rather work with you than against you!” she wrote. By August, Ralston had changed her mind. According to the minutes, Ralston said that since the Board’s last vote on dogs there have been “incidents” in town and that she has “had time to do a lot more research…” In an email to Dianne DeLucia after the meeting Ralston wrote that “the issue was forced” because there needed to be a new sign purchased which listed cemetery rules.
“I didn’t want hard feelings to override the other work we’re doing in the cemetery as a trustee group,” Ralston wrote. Reached by telephone Friday afternoon, Ralston declined to comment, referring questions to Dearborn.
During the August meeting Dearborn had reiterated that among other things she was concerned for “elderly visitors that are already unstable on grassy areas feeling more insecure,” in the presence of dogs. Jack Bigelow was not present at the meeting in August, though according to Dearborn he made it known to her that he supported a ban. The members present voted 4-0 to ban dogs from the cemetery. Several weeks later, the signs went up.
For now, it is only dogs who are banned from the cemetery, but in meetings over the past year the Board has expressed repeated interest in keeping out joggers as well, and to ban bicycles.
“If things keep going this way,” Andover resident Susan May wrote in an email, “only dead people will be allowed in the cemetery.”