Friday, March 27, 2009

Utah town takes steps to acquire cemetery plots

The town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, now has the authority to legally acquire cemetery plots that go unused for generations, if an owner cannot be found.

U.S. Senate considers veterans cemetery in Colorado

The Senate introduced a bill to establish a veterans cemetery near Colorado Springs. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall back the plan.

Arkansas cemetery nears reopening after ice storm

The Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which was closed after it was damaged by an ice storm in January, is expected to be reopened in April, officials said. This link, from a TV station, includes contact info for anyone who wants to help with the remaining cleanup.
Citizens in Dell Prairie, Wisconsin, approved a measure to acquire an acre of land for expansion of a town cemetery. The purchase price is expected to be about $6,500, lower than the $9,000 offered to the owner earlier.

Old cemetery uncovered in Kentucky

Workers on a project to install a new outdoor stadium at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington uncovered a cemetery at the site.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Orphaned cemeteries in judge's hands

A judge in Lebanon County, Pa., will rule on who is responsible for two abandoned cemeteries in Palmyra, Pa. From the article:
A cemetery association was established by members of the two churches in
1867, but the association disbanded about 30 years ago, and the churches took
over management and maintenance of the cemetery.
Through the years, the
association’s records have been lost, so there is no list of members or lot
holders. The churches maintain that, because they are not the legal owners of
the cemetery, the responsibility for maintaining a neglected or abandoned
cemetery lies with the borough.

Florida highway project threatens cemetery

Plans to widen Palm Bay Road in Brevard Count, Florida, have threatened some old graves of two infants who died in the early 1900s.

Flooding season: A request to readers

With this news out of North Dakota that the Red River is rising, I ask readers of this blog to keep me in the loop if any cemeteries are hit by the annual spring floods. Please send me information to the blog's contact address, and please let me know if you have a link to photos online. I'll link to your photo galleries, and to any news reports of cemeteries damaged by flooding.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Alabama town gets cemetery map

The town of Jemison, Ala., has gotten an official map of Pine Hill Cemetery, so that officials know what plots are available. Says Mayor Eddie Reed:
“I wish we were never in the cemetery business, but we are.”

Development projects unearth remains

USA Today gives a thorough look at the various projects across the country that have run into delays after digging up gravesites.

Connecticut lawmakers eye measure for cemetery takeover

The town of Easton, Connecticut, would be allowed to take over four abandoned cemeteries, under a measure being considered by the Connecticut General Assembly.

Tax levy planned for Nebraska town

Wallace, Nebraska, officials want to implement a tax of less than 10 cents per $1,000 value to help with the upkeep of Morning View Cemetery, which gets about $20,000 annually in interest with which to operate, about $2,000 less than it needs.

Lawmaker comes to rescue of Grand Forks cemetery

The Grand Forks, North Dakota, city government is seeking nearly $400,000 in special assessments from a cemetery association to help pay for flood protection, but a state lawmaker has introduced legislation to relieve that burden. Here is our earlier report on this, which includes a link to the original state Supreme Court decision ruling that cemeteries are exempt from such tax assessments.
Here is a story from Fargo on the subject.

New York eyes converting a cemetery to one for veterans

Sen. Charles Schumer is pushing for creation of a veterans cemetery in western New York. He is backing a plan to acquire Cheektowaga's Pine Lawn Cemetery and turn it into a facility for veterans, saying that money for the project could come from the federal stimulus bill.

Manufacturer comes to the aid of a cemetery

A financially struggling cemetery in San Gabriel Valley, California, has received some aid from a local manufacturer, M.C. Gill, which manufactures parts used in building aircraft and other vehicles.

Map not to scale, but praised nonetheless

A new map of the Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham, Washington, is not designed to be geographically correct, and that's OK with some folks.

Cemetery cites privacy issues

This is not really the domain of this blog, but it's interesting and worth sharing. An amateur genealogist began compiling the list of the deceased at Old Union Christian Church Cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky, but stoked the ire of the church board, saying that his publishing of the information online violated the privacy of those buried there and their families. His Web site has 475 documented burials at the site. A Kentucky law professor says the information is in the public domain.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Tapho Files 1: James Howard Kunstler

WELCOME to a new feature at Whistling Past the Graveyard. To kick things off, noted author James Howard Kunstler, a well-respected voice in the New Urbanism movement, answered several questions for me about cemeteries and New Urbanism. Kunstler is the author of several leading books about our modern environs, including "The Geography of Nowhere," "Home from Nowhere" and "The Long Emergency." His latest book is "World Made by Hand," billed as a "novel of the Long Emergency set in upstate New York in the not distant future." He also is a renowned speaker and the star of the KunstlerCast weekly audio program, as well as an accomplished painter.
In the future, I hope to offer more views from other leading figures of our day.
But first, James Howard Kunstler:

Whistling Past the Graveyard: Where do cemeteries fit in within the overall planning picture, via New Urbanism or even among more "traditional" planners?

JHK-- As far as I know, the cemetery has been an afterthought at best, and a non-thought more usually when it comes to anything in post 1950 planning. Prior to that, they enjoyed status as park-like amenities in cities that were smaller and slower than today's are -- with their disruptive overlays of Happy Motoring. The two prototypes for this were Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which were designed explicitly for strolling and laid out with great thought and artistry. This tended to be so because people died in places that had been their homes most of their lives. Our collective attitude today seems to regard death as a medical error, something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. Most new cemeteries are laid out with all the thought and care of tract housing, and surrounded by chain link fence (a material more suited to dog runs and scarp yards). The sense of the sacred seems to have eluded us. Now it is little more than a below-ground storage problem, with all the additional hydrological concerns. To my knowledge, the New Urbanists have not included a cemetery in any of their plans.

WPTG: Cemeteries often get lost amid discussions about housing, mixed use, transit, infrastructure, etc. All are legitimate concerns, so how can cemeteries step up their game and become part of the conversation and get some much-needed attention? Is this solely a from-the-ground-up movement, or can it come from the top down?

JHK-- The decades ahead -- the period I call "The Long Emergency" will furnish plenty of "customers" for cemeteries as the "usual suspects" (starvation disease, hardship, war) do their things in a resource-scarcer world. In general, our values and mores are likely to change radically in the face of this, including our treatment of the dead. Note too that our towns and cities will be changing a lot too -- and not in the direction of science fiction -- more like a return to the mid-19th century.

WPTG: Why do you think cemeteries have been so underrepresented in planning/New Urbanism discussions?

JHK -- Two reasons. 1. as in any real estate venture of our time a cemetery would have to occupy valuable lots that might otherwise be assigned to houses. 2. Few New Urbanism projects have active churches associated in their design. Add perhaps another: Americans in recent decades have moved so frequently that there is little expectation of dying-in-place.

WPTG: Who are the people you know who remain mindful of cemeteries in their work?

JHK -- nobody, really.

WPTG: There seem to be nearly as many zoning designations for cemeteries as there are communities. In my town, Winslow Township, NJ, they're a "non-conforming use." Two towns up the highway, they have specs down to lot size, frontage, percent of paved surface, and the like. So what's the best way to include cemeteries in master plans and the like? Is there a need for some uniformity?

JHK: You may find this answer impertinent, but I genuinely believe that the disorders of "The Long Emergency" will be such that planning departments will be dismantled for lack of government funding and the public will ignore the zoning laws as the motoring experience and all its niggling demands shrinks into history.

WPTG: Where, in your travels, have you seen the best recognition (for lack of a better word) of cemeteries and their role in an urban-scape?

JHK -- In many parts of the eastern USA where cemeteries were established in relation to churches, and where they were part of that mid-19th Century park movement. A very high proportion of people are cremated these days -- I suppose because they haven't lived in a given place long enough to have allegiance to it, or the place is not worthy of allegiance, or because it's less expensive for surviving family members.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Religion study and cemeteries

It's been interesting reading to follow news about the new American Religious Identification Survey, put out by Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut.

But what does that have to do with cemeteries? Well, for starters, one of the highlights of the study is that:

One sign of the lack of attachment of Americans to religion is that 27% do not
expect a religious funeral at their death.

It will fall to the non-religious cemeteries to carry a larger load of burials, including those run by governments. And, as I reported last week, cemeteries are suffering in the recession and will struggle to meet the demand, even if the demand falls amid rising interest in cremations. Not everyone will opt for cremation - for cultural or personal reasons - so their remains will have to wind up someplace.

Green burial is another growing option, but until regulators do more to understand and embrace this option, operators/proponents of green cemeteries will have their own battles to fight. I talked with a cemetery colleague last week and commented that Bibb County, Georgia, appears to be Ground Zero for the fight to create a green cemetery, which the rewriting of the codes to exclude a proposed site. But I'm sure Bibb County is not the only place wrestling with this issue. Green burial advocates need to remind people that burials in the United States all were green, until the introduction of the funeral industry in the middle of the 19th century (when arsenic became the embalming substance of choice). Now, let me reiterate: The conventional funeral industry not the enemy, by any means, but nor is the green burial industry (and, yes, while advocates might have idealistic intentions, it is, bottom line, an industry). There is room for both, literally and figuratively.

But here's another interesting point to the religion study. As more people choose to be non-religious, that puts more strain on existing churches to fund their everyday operations and their worship services - pay salaries, teach religious education, build sanctuaries, etc. - let alone their burial grounds. A lot of churches - if not all - already have some fiscal concerns. This economy is hurting everyone. So, fewer people attending church could mean more risk of religious cemeteries falling into disrepair.

As the ARIS reports:

Forestalling of religious rites of passage, such as marriage, and the lowering
expectations on religious funeral services, could have long lasting consequences
for religious institutions.

I'm not advocating any particular religion - nor am I advocating the no-religion option - but the choices Americans make about their religion will have significant impact on American cemeteries.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Recession hits cemeteries hard

By Deborah Woodell
Whistling Past the Graveyard

Unlike banks, brokerage houses and automakers -- and even you and me -- there is no rescue plan for financially struggling cemeteries in the United States.

“There is no bailout; there is no magic bullet,” Robert Fells, external chief operating officer and general counsel of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a trade organization of some 7,200 members, told Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Cemeteries don't generate big headlines the way General Motors, AIG, or Bank of America do. But stories of struggling cemeteries are everywhere -- just look in your favorite search engine.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., city officials have requested information from potential business partners to help control costs and grow revenue for two municipally operated cemeteries.

Cash-strapped Pontiac, Mich., which faces a budget deficit of more than $6 million, is in the process of selling two historic cemeteries for $475,000 to StoneMor, of Levittown, Pa. Mayor Clarence Phillips told the Detroit Free Press that Oak Hill and Ottawa Park cost the city $300,000 to $400,000 a year to maintain, and some residents reportedly have complained about the lack of care there.

"I think it's a great deal because, they will take care of the cemeteries properly," Phillips said.

Greenville, Texas, recently agreed to contract out its lawn and maintenance work to a private contract.

"The Parks and Recreation Department looked at if they could maintain the cemeteries cheaper than a private company," director Colby VanGundy told Whistling Past the Graveyard in an e-mail. "A cost analyst was done and the bid came cheaper than what the City had been doing the work."

He recommended a contract of about $75,000 a year for a landscaping company to mow and trim vegetation, as opposed to the $110,000 the city was spending.

The stories are similar all across the country -- from Littleton, Massachusetts, to Fresno, California. Sometimes, it's the government seeking help from private enterprise; sometimes private operations seek help from their local governments.

“The cemetery is a business like no other,” Fells said. “It is the only business that says, ‘We will be in service FOREVER. We’ll be in business until doomsday.’ ”

Even North America's largest provider of death-care services has felt the pinch. In its end-of-the-year financial report, the publicly traded Service Corporation International reported a drop in revenue from $760 million in 2007 to $679.9 million last year. In its news release reporting the annual finances, the company said: "Cemetery operations were more susceptible to economic and financial market conditions, with comparable gross profit decreasing $28.4 million or 59%, driven by lower preneed sales, lower trust fund income recognized and less cemetery property construction revenue."

Besides those problems cited by SCI, myriad other problems have led cemeteries to these dire straits. The costs of basic cemetery care – watering, mowing, trimming, and the workers who perform those tasks – are rising, and many governments have already privatized those services as a way to contain costs – or at least have a firm number. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that the water bill rise from rose from $37,710 in 2003 to $115,000 in 2007, leading to privatization of those services.

"Out here, we irrigate our cemeteries, and water is expensive,” Will DeBoer, manager of two city cemeteries, Evergreen and Fairview, told Whistling Past the Graveyard. Neither of those cemeteries receives taxpayer support.

As burials drop, so does revenue. Nationally, about 25 percent of the public is choosing cremation over traditional burials. In Colorado Springs, that number is 66 percent.

“Typically, people in the West are not from the West,” DeBoer said, which means their cremains are sent home, or scattered in their favorite places. And it means fewer burials.

Sometimes, cemeteries are faced with unforeseen expenses, such as the estimated $3 million in damage that Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery suffered after a tornado in March 2008, or the estimated $100,000 each in vandalism damage in February at cemeteries in Kentucky and Georgia. Scrap metal thieves are increasing targeting cemeteries; cemeteries in San Diego have lost more than 300 brass and bronze grave markers since 2006, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“There is no greater underdog than the cemetery,” said Dusty Smith, who heads the International Association of Cemetery Preservationists, which is based in Florida.

In some cases, the cemeteries’ perpetual care funds have been rocked by the financial crisis itself – DeBoer noted that his cemetery perpetual-care fund took a $1.5 million hit because of the market in 2008.

Fells said the lack of proper business planning is a problem.

“Show me a cemetery in trouble, and I'll show you a cemetery that doesn't have sound business practices," he said.

“Some of them have no five-year plan, or 10-year plan.” Others, he noted, are hamstrung by both their operators' fiscal conservatism -- "Some of them don't invest in anything riskier than a passbook savings account, or maybe a six-month CD" -- or by regulations that restrict investment strategies.

Like many cemetery operations, Klamath Memorial Park, which opened in 1946 in Klamath Falls, Oregon, the $400,000 principal is untouchable until the cemetery is full. In the meantime, the city plays about $150,000 a year to operate and maintain the cemetery.

Smith noted that perpetual care seldom keeps pace with rising costs, even in good times. When the nation’s earliest cemeteries were established in the 1600s and 1700s, perpetual care cost a dollar.

“Now, what does a dollar get you?” she said.

“We have a product no one wants now,” DeBoer said. He went on to note that while there might be strong emotional and cultural sentiments about cemeteries, “Bottom line, it’s a business.”

Cemeteries also suffer from a lack of attention, unless they’ve turned themselves into a cultural or historic landmark. Smith said her research has shown that many cemeteries begin to fall into neglect and disrepair about 40 years – about a generation – after the final plot is filled. Except for people interested in history and genealogy, few people find a reason to visit a cemetery, once the immediate descendants of those buried die.

In Florida alone, she said, of the 4,000 known cemetery locations in Florida, 63 percent of them are considered abandoned or severely neglected.

Added Fells: “Once or twice a year, I’ll get a telephone call from an elderly man … and he'll say that no one is stepping forward. ‘Who will take over for me when I’m gone?’ ”

So, how will cemeteries be rescued, and where will the money come from?

In this tough economy, selling off land for development does not appear to be an option, according to DeBoer, whose city previously did just that.

“We’ve sold off parcels to developers in the past, but the real estate market and development are really down,” he said.

Depending on what business partnerships Colorado Springs can develop, he won’t rule out closing off the cemetery to new burials – while reassuring concerned residents that the cemeteries themselves won’t close.

“Every cemetery has a finite life span [regarding active burials],” he said, “but I’m confident that the cemeteries will always be there ... Cemeteries are in it for the long haul."

The joke going around now is that nothing is more "shovel-ready" than cemeteries, but there is little direct funding for them in President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. It does include $50 million for memorial maintenance projects for Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration. According to a statement from the office of U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat from Texas' 17th Congressional District: “These funds will enable the National Cemetery Administration to work toward an established set of cemetery standards of appearance throughout the system.”

Some states undoubtedly will use stimulus funds for specific projects. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle already has indicated that some funds will go toward veterans’ burials in state or county cemeteries, because there is no national cemetery in the state.

But unless governments fund their cemeteries – an increasingly unattractive option for them – most of the money to fix up cemeteries and keep them operating will from individual operators, community organizations and individual residents – just as it always has.

Smith said that there once were 4,300 sources of federal dollars for historic preservation, but now there are only 222. She did say the private sector does have about 16,000 grants for preservation, but the competition for those funds is growing.

“A lot of that money goes to keep [historically designated] cemeteries in good shape, instead of fixing up the abandoned ones,” she said.

Smith, who got her start in cemetery preservation as an outgrowth of an interest in paranormal research, requires her members to perform cemetery cleanup work once a month as part of their membership in IACP. That organization is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, but gives out advice and guidance, not funds.

Around the country, individuals and organizations hold cleanup days and perform other community activities. As winter recedes and spring arrives, the number of those projects will rise, giving many citizens the chance to do what the economy isn't -- keep our cemeteries in good health.

Recession story: Newark Star-Ledger

The Newark Star-Ledger also reports on the drop in business at cemeteries.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Teen vandals get community service

Four teens who vandalized a Jewish cemetery in January were ordered to perform community service as part of their sentence.
  How's this for a thought? Why not have them perform that community service by cleaning up cemeteries?

New cemetery planned for southern New Jersey

Plans are under way to create a new mausoleum/cemetery in Medford Township, Burlington County, NJ. The new operator is a former employee of NFL Films.

Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta reopens this weekend

Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, which was heavily damaged by a tornado in March 2008, will reopen this weekend. 

Remains removal OK'd in West Virginia

A  judge has approved the removal of 22 graves in a family plot in order for Patriot Mining Co. to gain access to 80,000 to 100,000 tons ($5.2 million) of coal.

Monday, March 9, 2009

More on West Virginia cemeteries vs. coal company

The Associated Press reports on the earlier-mentioned proposal to move 22 graves to expand coal-mining operations in West Virginia.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cemetery expansion opposed in Hawaii

The Hawaiian Memorial Park Cemetery is seeking a rezoning of property from conservation to urban, so that it can expand, but nearby residents fear what the zoning change will do to their area. From this article:
The cemetery's owners want to expand, developing 35.6 acres of conservation
land to provide burial space, mausoleums and cremation sites. But to do that,
they must obtain the approval of the state Land Use Commission to rezone 56.5
acres of conservation land to urban use, because cemeteries are not allowed on
conservation land.

Tennessee woman battles state DOT over land for highway

The Tennessee Department of Transportation already acquired some of the land of Dorothy Beard, but now that says design plans have changed and that it needs more of her land -- including part of the family cemetery -- to complete its Highway 840 project. TDOT says it won't touch any graves.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Texas town to drill for gas; cemetery to get part of windfall

Officials in the Crestwood section of Fort Worth, Texas, approved a measure to drill for natural gas, putting seven wells on a site in Greenwood Cemetery. Residents in the area will get a reported $14 million in royalties, and the cemetery will get a piece of that. Cemetery general manager Arlie Davenport says they will use the funds for capital improvements: "We celebrate our 100th anniversary this year, and these royalties will help make the next 100 years better than the last."

Service Corporation International reports 2008 financials

Here is a handful of items regarding the annual report of Servcice Corporation International, a leader in the death-care industry:
A news release about the fourth-quarter and annual finances.

Here's my summary: Cemetery revenues for the final quarter of 2008 were $160.5 million, down from $202.0 million in 4Q 2007. For the full year, 2008 revenue totaled $679.9 million, down from $760.0 million in 2007.

A transcript of the the conference call on the matter:

Here's a blurb from the company about its operations:

About Service Corporation International
Service Corporation International (NYSE: SCI), headquartered in Houston, Texas, is North America's leading provider of deathcare products and services. At December 31, 2008, we owned and operated more than 1,300 funeral homes and 350 cemeteries (of which over 200 are combination locations) in 43 states, eight Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Through our businesses, we market the Dignity Memorial(R) brand which offers assurance of quality, value, caring service, and exceptional customer satisfaction. For more information about Service Corporation International, please visit our website at For more information about Dignity Memorial(R), please visit

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Feral hogs in San Antonio cemetery

Feral hogs are causing damage at the Mission Burial Ground.

$250G for "cemetery interpretation" in Nacogdoches, Texas

The city of Nacogdoches, Texas, and Stephen F. Austin University are receiving a $250,000 "Preserve America" grant from the National Parks Service for a joint project to map and study the Oak Grove and Zion Hill cemeteries in the city. From the article:
The first objective of the project is to build upon existing Geographic
Information Systems data to create a model cemetery-interpretation program for
the Oak Grove and Zion Hill cemeteries in Nacogdoches. Once established,
genealogy researchers and heritage tourists may access the program online to
learn about the historic cemeteries and the people buried in them.

Grand Forks council denies appeal from cemetery association

The Grand Forks council denied the request from the cemetery association to reduce its $240,000 in assessments to pay for a dike in the city.