The Public Cemetery: Meeting New Challenges in a Time of Change

By Wickersham, Mary Eleanor; Yehl, Robert | The Public Manager, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Public Cemetery: Meeting New Challenges in a Time of Change


Wickersham, Mary Eleanor, Yehl, Robert, The Public Manager


"Pray for Armageddon," one public manager quipped as he described his city cemetery's only potential escape from its mounting fiscal challenges. He is not alone. The lack of space in city cemeteries for new income-producing burials, plus a significant trend toward cremation in lieu of burial and lower interest on trust funds used for maintenance have eroded cemetery revenues across the United States. This leaves many public managers searching for alternatives to traditional funding mechanisms and innovations in cemetery land use.

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The privatization trend seen elsewhere in government has not been popular in cemetery management, evidence that profit-seeking operators are reluctant to take on liability for a "product" with little or no income stream or any significant income growth potential given perpetual maintenance responsibilities. New York's 25-year effort to sell Canarsie Cemetery attracted no bidders until it sold for $50,000 in 2011. Perhaps even worse, local governments are often trapped in ownership of prime real estate that represents foregone taxes.

Why Public Cemeteries?

Cities were not always in the cemetery business. In colonial America, people most often were buried on the town common, in a church yard or beneath a church, in a private burial ground, or on the sparsely populated land where the death occurred. Cemeteries were simply built-over as cities developed. But with urban growth and epidemics that caused mass deaths came the public health threat of untended graves. Beginning in the 19th century, cities and not-for-profits began to move cemeteries outside of the city centers, creating park-like burial grounds on town boundaries.

Since the 1850s, the cultural significance of cemeteries has grown. The structures themselves reflect the social, artistic, ethnic, and religious heritage of their communities. As maintenance costs increased in the 20th century, ornate monuments that once dominated many city cemeteries have given way to flat "slabs" and, more recently, to lower maintenance "greens." In the last decade, "green burials" have gained popularity, even in historic cemeteries that have exhausted their traditional burial sites.

Cemeteries and the Public Manager

Like many aspects of local government, cemeteries have the potential to be political. In their 2010 article for the American Planning Association, Carlton Basmajian and Christopher Coutts describe four reasons why cemeteries "pose public issues:"

1. their sensitive contents make burial grounds essentially permanent, unlike most other land uses

2. when expanded or constructed, burial facilities are often perceived as nuisances

3. burial and cremation produce both positive and negative environmental externalities

4. greater expected numbers of deaths in coming decades will make it more difficult for communities to accommodate human remains, especially if they require burial.

In some communities, public cemetery managers have been brought into public discussions on race and politics, due to the history of discrimination that is memorialized in many local government cemeteries throughout the Unite States. As late as 1953 it was estimated that 90 percent of all public cemeteries in the nation had racially restrictive covenants. Not until 1970 did federal courts rule that such covenants violated the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and cemeteries removed the last vestiges of these discriminatory practices.

Politics also affects cemetery development. In a survey conducted by the authors in early 2013 with approximately 90 local governments (ranging in size from 790 to more than 3 million residents) responding, only five reported adding new cemeteries since 2000. New cemeteries are rare in part due to their tax-exempt status and the high cost of and limited access to sufficient quantities of urban land. Neighborhood residents often lead "NIMBY" protests, citing worries about increased traffic and, to put it plainly, the "creep factor" of a cemetery next door. …

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