Westerlo Rural was in grave shape when Filkins revitalized the cemetery

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Westerlo Rural Cemetery has burials going back to 1800.

WESTERLO — Four years ago, Betty Filkins came up with a design for her gravestone.

Made of granite, polished to a mirror-like finish, it is in the shape of a heart joined with another heart for her husband. It has their wedding date: May 9, 1966, and an etching of a train for him, reflecting his life’s work, and a roller coaster for her because she loves them.

For both of them, it has a Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company seal; Richard and Betty Filkins are each volunteers and she was the company’s first woman firefighter.

“As long as we don’t divorce, we’re OK,” Filkins said with a smile.

In a more serious tone, she said the gravestone is next to her grandson’s in the Westerlo Rural Cemetery.

Filkins, who is 72, said she and her husband were told they’d have to dig their own hole for the foundation for the gravestone. They did. She learned then that the cemetery was in financial trouble.

“Dick Stark was the president of the cemetery board then,” Filkins told The Enterprise. “He called himself the last man standing.”

The cemetery, she said, had “minus 34 dollars” to its name. “Dick was going to turn it over to the town,” she said, which is what happens to cemeteries in New York State that are no longer financially solvent.

Betty Filkins wasn’t going to let that happen.

She named all of her relatives that are buried there, including her mother and father, her grandmother and grandfather, her brother, her niece, and her grandson.

The back of her gravestone has her family tree going back to the 1700s, just as the back of her husband’s gravestone has his family tree going back to the 1700s.

“I got on Facebook, and people showed up for the meeting,” she recalled.

She is now the president of the cemetery’s board of trustees.

Filkins walked through the graveyard and looked at the names on the headstones then sent letters to people with those names still living in Westerlo, soliciting contributions. The fund drive raised $10,000, she said, half of it from the Hannay family, which owns the dominant business in town, Hannay Reels.

She then approached the town about making a $5,000 contribution.

And so the distribution of those funds was on the agenda for the Westerlo Town Board’s Sept. 3 meeting.

Acting supervisor William Bichteman said that cemetery representatives had agreed Westerlo Rural Cemetery would get half the funds, and the other two active cemeteries in town — Hannacroix Cemetery and Westerlo Central Cemetery — would each get 25 percent.

The town has “70-some” cemeteries, he said, but only these three are still active.

“Hannacroix is clearly the poorest, then Central, then Rural,” said Bichteman. He also said that cemeteries had not been in the town budget until last year.

Bichteman said he saw no need for the town to fund Westerlo Rural Cemetery. “The only one in need is Hannacroix,” he said, which he added was “potentially in jeopardy of defaulting.”

“Westerlo Rural Cemetery actually turned a profit in recent years,” said Bichteman. “They want to buy another lawnmower,” he said, noting the cemetery had bought a mower two years ago.

He went on, “They have $100,000 in their account. It’s hard to justify spending $5,000 of town money. They borrowed $20,000 recently, not a very sound decision.”

“We work hard,” Betty Filkins told the board, explaining about the fundraising cemetery supporters do.

She also spoke of the work volunteers do, maintaining the grounds. As pinecones fell last fall, she said, “Four of us were raking for three days.”

She also spoke of a Halloween trunk-or-treat fundraiser the cemetery had held last year but said it might not be possible this year since one volunteer “has Stage 4 cancer and another has AFib arrest,” a reference to atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia.

Councilman Joseph Boone said he thought the division agreed on by the cemeteries was equitable since Westerlo Rural has the most maintenance.

The town’s attorney, Javid Afzali, advised Richard Filkins he should abstain from the vote.

“He knows me,” quipped his wife from the gallery.

Council members Boone, Amie Burnside, and Anthony Sherman all voted in favor of  the recommended division of funds. Bichteman, as an appointed acting supervisor, does not vote.

Betty Filkins told The Enterprise after the vote that she had gotten in touch with Bob Carl from the Westerlo Central Cemetery and with Linda Smith from the Hannacroix Cemetery, and they said they would be happy with $1,250 each, leaving $2,500 for the Westerlo rural Cemetery.

“They have maybe two acres each,” said Filkins, and neither cemetery has much room for many more burials.

The Westerlo Rural Cemetery, on the other hand, has 13 acres of gravesites, she said, and another seven acres that is undeveloped.

Steve Peck does the maintenance and needs a smaller mower to get around the stones in the old section, which are close together, said Filkins.

“The New York State Cemetery Association says we can borrow money to make roads,” Filkins said. “It takes money to make money. We put in two roads last month.”

In addition to the new roads, two roads in the old section of the cemetery and three roads in the new section were resurfaced. The old roads had become rutted, Filkins said, so that cars would sometimes hit what had become a hump in the middle, between the two tire tracks.

The total cost for all of the road work was $20,000, done by East Berne Asphalt, she said, explaining, “They gave us a good deal; it was the best bid.”
Filkins said $8,000 remains in the treasury, and there is another $80,000 in a “perpetual fund for future care.”

There are plans to use some of the new section for “green burials,” Filkins said, which are becoming quite popular. With green burials, the body is not embalmed and is placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud without a concrete burial vault.

Relatives would be able to plant trees at green burial sites, Filkins said.

She also said people want to be buried at higher elevations. “They want a view of the Catskills,” Filkins said.

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.