Grandmother crusades to restore town cemeteries devastated by vandalism and neglect

Year after year, Fran Hanchett has campaigned for Lebanon to take better care of cemeteries suffering from vandalism, hard winters and the neglect of graves dating to the Revolutionary War.

Many forces drive the 72-year-old grandmother: Outrage at the desecration of family graves. Frustration at City Hall’s reluctance to take on the repair work. Reverence for the history of the town where she grew up.

But there’s something else: an abusive 42-year marriage that she finally found the courage to leave behind.

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“I escaped the marriage and this is my healing project,” Hanchett says as she shows me around the School Street Cemetery, the oldest of eight city graveyards in Lebanon.

“Where do you go that’s more peaceful and quiet?” she says. “Nobody’s bothering you. Nobody’s asking you questions. Nobody’s badgering you.”

Hanchett’s activism is helping not just her but also her community. City Council voted recently to put the city’s cemeteries under the oversight of a Board of Cemetery Trustees, five appointed volunteers who Hanchett hopes will lead the way to a systematic restoration of the burying grounds.

There’s plenty of work to do, says Hanchett, who is president of the Lebanon Historical Society. School Street is at the top of the to-do list. 

The cemetery reaches in an L-shape around the Montessori Discovery School. Its grassy lawn and shade trees provide a final resting place for many of the city’s founding families and leading citizens, with headstones bearing names including Storrs, Dwinell and Whipple.

A wisp of a woman with bright white hair and busy hands, she leads me through the burying ground. In row after row, she points out headstones that are bent like bad teeth. Winter frost softens the soil, allowing the stones to list.

“Look down this row here. They’re leaning every which way,” she says. “Just standing those up would make a huge difference.”

It gets worse. Some centuries-old memorials made of marble, granite or slate have fallen over and shattered. In some cases, gravity brought the monuments down. In others, vandals did the work.

“I just about cry every time I walk through this cemetery because it just keeps going downhill,” she says. “I’ve been fighting with the city of Lebanon for 10 years to do something here.”

Hanchett (who took back her maiden name after her divorce) grew up on Dorothy Perley Road, one of three daughters of a father who served under General Patton in World War II. After logging 13 unhappy years in central Florida and escaping her marriage, she returned to her hometown a decade ago.

In 2010, she made an inventory of all the people buried in the city’s cemeteries. She found herself both dismayed and stymied by the condition of many of the headstones, which were broken or had been allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state.

Some of the markers had fallen face-first into the soil, keeping her from reading the names inscribed. When she asked city officials for help in lifting them to read, she says, she was told they could not because the markers were private property.

A few years back, she said, teenage girls knocked down 75 stones but the then-police chief declined even to require them to help with repairs. “What’s wrong with community service?” she fumes. “I think it would have done them a lot of good to repair some of the damage they did.”

She’s hopeful that the new cemetery trustees will focus the city’s efforts, with some help from money set aside in the budget, a grant from the Mascoma Foundation and the sweat of volunteers. In addition to urging on that broad effort, Hanchett will continue her ambitious project to identify Civil War soldiers who deserve a military memorial but don’t yet have one.

As we stroll around the cemetery, children at the Montessori school giggle and romp in the playground. At the burial ground next door, Hanchett’s “healing project” will give them a gift of which they are likely not yet aware.

“This,” she says, “is where the city of Lebanon’s history is."


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