Community Listening Session Held Regarding Dogs in First Church Burial Ground

With the lack of official dog parks in the neighborhood, some JP residents have taken to using the burial ground at the First Church in Jamaica Plain to exercise their dogs. Other residents are upset with this, saying they do not believe dogs belong in the burial ground and are causing disruption to abutters.

The First Church in Jamaica Plain held a community meeting on July 29 to hear both sides of the issue. Nearly 70 residents came out to listen and express their opinion on the matter.

Leslie McClain from the First Church’s Governing Board said that the goal is to “move away from the belief that there are only two sides to this issue.” She added that the board would not be making any decisions at the meeting. “We are here to listen to the voices of our community,” she said. “Your participation is an important part of our decision making.”

The meeting was moderated by Persis Yu, who called on those who wanted to speak and facilitated questioning from members of the Governing Board.

At the meeting, there were many community members who expressed why they feel dogs should be allowed in the burial ground, and many who felt it was inappropriate.

Bonnie McBride, a resident who brought this issue up to the Jamaica Pond Association in July, said that she abuts the burial ground and feels that the sign that has recently been put up asking for donations to the Church is not appropriate. She also said she considers cemeteries a “sacred space” and does not believe that dogs belong.

Stephen from the governing board asked McBride what her problem with the sign is.

“I think it’s the timing of the sign,” she responded. “It’s obviously, as I see it, designated to continue this quid pro quo business. I’ve lived here 27 years. That sign when up maybe five months ago.” She said the sign “does not repeat the notice that dogs should be on leash.”

Gwen Coburn had a different point of view. She said she has lived in the neighborhood since 2013, and walks her dog in the cemetery. “I am never there beyond dawn or dusk,” she said, adding that she is “often there in the middle of the day by myself.” Contrary to what some others said, Coburn said she has “never seen another dog there in the middle of the day in the week. From my experience, the dog owners are providing a lot of stewardship for the church,” she added. “We are picking up glass, debris, random things that are in the church yard.”

She continued, “we’re really grateful for the use of the space…”

Kevin Moloney, a JP resident and member of the Jamaica Pond Association, said that he has lived several places in Jamaica Plain throughout his life, and has “been a dog owner almost my whole life.”

He is of the viewpoint that the burial ground should not welcome dogs. “To run dogs, whether they’re leashed or unleashed, in a historic graveyard, is an abomination,” Moloney said. “The church doesn’t have the legal right to create a nuisance. It should not continue any further.”

Resident Andrew Rainer, one of the dog owners, said that “the church has a right to make appropriate use of its property.” He continued, “we are respectful of the fact that this is a neighborhood and we understand that there are many different perspectives of this.” Rainer also addressed comments made that dog owners are not respectful of the space.

“I can assure you that we are all prepared to significantly limit the hours that people are bringing their dogs there to be good neighbors to you.”

Resident Eric Weil said that as a dog owner, he does take his dog in the cemetery, but he also said he showed his children the headstones and their “significance.” Additionally, he said “the individuals who are in the park police each other quite nicely. We all bring an extra bag.” He said he enjoys cleaning the yard and is still respectful of the burial ground.

Another resident, who identified herself as Judy, said that as someone who lives around the corner from the church, she and her partner were unaware of people using the space for dogs “until a month ago. We saw somebody in the burial ground with their dog. We felt it was disrespectful to the people buried in that burial ground who are buried there as well as any of their descendants.”

RJ Cross, a dog owner, said that a group of dog owners formed a contact list and held a series of Zoom meetings. He said that the group recognizes that there are “legitimately valid concerns about dogs being in the church yard,” but suggested some ideas of how dogs could be allowed in a very respectful way. He suggested that there be a “subset of the park away from the graves,” as well as seeding one or two times a year, and having a membership with dues that will fund yard maintenance. He said that if people do not abide by the rules, they will be banned from the park.

Joshua Dankoff said that there is “clear legal ramification for organizations who let off leash dogs go on their property,” adding that his wife was bitten by an off-leash dog in the Eliot School yard.

“I think it’s important for the board to know and the community to know that that can happen and does happen,” he said.

Alison Angell, a resident who lived on Eliot St. for 14 years, said that she was “there when the Eliot School went through their whole process” with dogs in the schoolyard. She said that the Eliot School had asked dog owners to respect the fact that it was a school yard, not a dog park. She suggested that the church “find out what their reasons were so you can take them into account.”

She added that she is “surprised by all the dogs” and “how much the grass is no longer green. Those people were buried there by loved ones who believed that would be a cemetery.” Angell did say that she is “very sensitive and respectful of the frustration dog owners have,” and that there is a need for a space for dogs in Jamaica Plain.

Kate Lapine, who has been a JP resident since 1999, said that over the years, she has noticed neighbors weed the burial ground as well as trim shrubs and clean up after their dogs.

“I feel that the folks who are out here daily are just incredibly warm-hearted and really experiencing the community that the church is such an element here in Jamaica Plain,” she said.

Dennis O’Brien of the church’s Governing Board thanked residents for participating in the listening session. “It’s an important process for us. I don’t know what the board’s going to come up with,” he said, adding that it “will be a decision that’s in the best interest of the church but will take into account concerns.”

For any residents who have comments about the graveyard, they can be emailed to  [email protected],

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