SALEM — Officials are considering shutting down the Charter Street Burial Ground for part or all of October as $600,000 in preservation work gears up for sometime after Halloween.
Charter Street Burial Ground, also known as the Burying Point, is a historic cemetery cornered by Charter and Liberty streets downtown. It has been a frequent talking point around the city as the Halloween season has continually grown, bringing hundreds of thousands of revelers to the Witch City each year and gradually causing irreversible wear on the historic site.
The project was initially targeting the early fall, but it has since overshot that mark and will play out after the season ends, according to Raymond Jodoin, director of operations in the city's Public Works department.
Still, city officials want to prevent further damage before the project can even start — damage that would play out this October, Jodoin explained. The request is in front of the city's Cemetery Commission.
"The concern from Planning is the added tourist groups, that people would go there and may inadvertently cause more damage," Jodoin said. "We're asking the Cemetery Commission to entertain the idea, to either A) support it or B) not support it."
The issue was continued to the commission's next meeting Sept. 10.
The cemetery, established in 1637, is among the oldest in the country. It is the burial place for several historic figures, including many connected to the Witch Trials — making it a major tourist attraction. Individual tourists, as well as walking tours, are a constant sight in the cemetery throughout the year.
But during October, officials face a different issue. With so many of the stones being well beyond 300 years old, many disintegrate to the touch and have had past repair work break away after repeated instances of tourists leaning on the stones, sitting on them, and more. Traveling tour groups loading up motor coaches flood the city each year, adding a level of lawlessness that causes problems for a local tour community that otherwise self-governs and follows city rules.
Calls to shut the Burying Point down escalated last year after tens of thousands of visitors moved through it over the course of October, officials said at the time. A lot of that energy came from Rachel Meyer, a stone conservator with the city until she left the position in July. Meyer also co-owns Epoch Preservation, a business that works with stone conservation.
Meyer's plan "was part concern for the artifacts in the graveyard and part concern for public safety," she said. "There was a noticeable lack of police presence specific to the site, and with 6,000-plus visitors a day during the busy days, it created an environment that was stressful and potentially unsafe to those who were trying to monitor it."
In the past two years, city workers frequently fought to protect the cemetery by posting head counters at the entrance and exit of the site. That included staff and volunteers capping the cemetery at 100 guests at a time on weekends in 2018.
Meyer's proposal, drafted once the last season was over, would beef up security and cut access so only tour groups could enter from Friday through Sunday, the busiest days for foot traffic, she said.
"I don't think anyone wants to close it down permanently, forever," Meyer said. "I might be wrong, but most people I'm hearing want it closed while a better plan is put in place and there is less confusion about whether it will be closed for renovation and what is happening there. I, personally, have never wanted it to be closed — but I also don't think it's currently a good environment when it comes to protecting the site and its artifacts or for public safety."
That's something local tour operators attending the meeting weren't keen on. For them, it is becoming an us-versus-them issue, where local guides play by the rules but groups from far outside the area descend on Salem, don't have licenses and aren't up to speed on the rules.
"We're kind of getting punished because all of these unlicensed tours go in there, do the damage, these scavenger hunts," said Giovanni Alabiso, owner of Salem Historical Tours. "We stay on the paths. None of our people touch the stones. I just feel like we're getting caught up in a very simple thing."
Meanwhile, some level of closure was also supported by the Friends of the Downtown Salem Historic Cemeteries. The group pushed for the cemetery to be shut down to the public for October weekends, but with the caveat of a "two strikes" provision for local, licensed tour companies to ensure their tour guides have access during the shutdowns and are forced to tour without impact.
"The main problem when it comes to tours is the pop up, non-local, and 'step-on' tour buses that come into town with groups of a hundred or more that are sent into Charter Street Cemetery without supervision, education, or any form of oversight," the group said in a letter shared at the meeting. "Closing the site to prevent deterioration due to massive crowds until new, clear pathways are developed with restoration funds is the best solution at this time."
Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, said the preservation project "is really important," so a shutdown supporting the project would be good. Being said, if someone were to discuss an all-out shutdown of the cemetery during October, she'd also be a fan, she explained.
"I think it's a good thing to protect the historic cemetery by limiting access," she said, "and if that means closing entirely during peak season, that would mitigate the impact of the tremendous visitation that goes into the cemetery."
It would be extreme, but Fox said shutting down the cemetery would also provide a valuable moment of reflection on the culture and history of the city that some feel gets lost amid the noise of the city's tourism engine.
"If this is an opportunity to cause people to pause and realize this is a real and authentic cemetery and final resting place that dates back hundreds of years," Fox said, "and it isn't a playground and (instead) is a place for solemn contemplation and respect, then good can come of the closure."