, Newburyport, MA

July 9, 2013

Graveyard's waist-high grass upsetting to local man


---- — NEWBURY – The First Parish Church on High Road has a growing problem – a grass-growing problem, that is.

For years Doug Morris, who grew up in Newbury but now lives in Salisbury, has visited the cemetery across the street from the church to plant flowers and pay his respects to relatives laid to rest there -- including, most recently, his grandmother. His family plot is tucked behind a stonewall on an area about half the size of a football field behind the newer Thomas Parker cemetery. There is also an older cemetery at the front of the lot, visible from High Road.

But this spring Morris’ attempts at filial piety have run into a snag. Lack of regular maintenance at the cemetery has left his ancestral headstones buried under waist high grass. He tried to clear an area around the family graves with his backyard weed whacker but found that the grass is now “way too high,” he said.

Unable to resolve the problem on his own, Morris said he started contacting church officials about the long grass around Memorial Day. Unfortunately that also wound up being a futile endeavor, according to Morris. In speaking with 5 different people, he says he got 5 different answers.

“I got one sob story after another about why the grass wasn’t being mowed,” said Morris. One time he was told the church had run out of money. Another time he heard that the amount in the mowing budget wasn’t adequate to hire a professional landscaper.

Morris was particularly frustrated when a team from the Essex County Sheriff Department’s worker program was brought in to mow the older front portion of the cemetery that can be seen from the road, but left untouched the grass growing around the 150 to 175 graves in the back section, where his family plot lies.

Recalling that the church had sold its weather-vane for a considerable sum several years’ back, Morris wondered how it could be that there is now no money for simple cemetery maintenance.

In 2009 the church raised $575,000 through the sale of an antique weather vane to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. After expenses, First Parish netted $450,000 from the sale of the circa 1722 gilded fowl. According to reports at the time, some of the proceeds were used to make repairs to the aging church building, with the bulk of the funds going to establish a charitable foundation.

But when reached by phone this week, a spokesperson for the church insisted there was nothing nefarious or mysterious about why the grass wasn’t being cut. The woman, who would only identify herself as a co-treasurer of the church, stressed that the church leadership was just a group of volunteers doing all it conceivably could to solve the problem.

Although the church was grateful for the recent help from the sheriff’s program, she said that unfortunately the workers inadvertently missed one section in back. But because the worker program is not intended to be used for ongoing maintenance, the sheriff’s department would not be sending its team back out to the church again to finish the job, she said.

No one in the church membership has the kind of gas powered weed whacker that is needed to get the job done, and most fees charged by the larger professional landscapers are too rich for the church’s coffers. She said the church is looking to hire a smaller, local mowing business on a full-time basis, but so far has had no luck getting businesses to return its phone calls.

“But we’re going to keep it up,” she said, “We really are trying our best.”

Clearly frustrated by Morris’ complaint and what she feels are the unwarranted negative implications it is generating for First Parish, the spokesperson said she wished as much attention would be paid to the church’s many good deeds and the events they’ve hosted for the community throughout the years.