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Planning for Cemeteries

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Planning for new or expanded cemetery space is a challenging issue, often given little attention. The first, obvious step is to acknowledge the need to address this issue. Like the subject of death itself, most people don't think about cemeteries if they don't have to. And planners, it seems, are no different.

Do you plan for your community's roadway network? Your housing needs? Your park system? Your schools? Cemeteries deserve the same attention and should be incorporated into the planning processes that cities and towns undertake for other types of infrastructure, community facilities, and services.

Over 2.5 million Americans are expected to die this year. The vast majority will be buried. Yet a number of communities, especially those more fully developed, are hard pressed to find cemetery space within their borders. Newspaper accounts across the country report case after case of neighborhood opposition to cemetery proposals. At the same time, maintenance of existing cemeteries has become a growing concern, as cemetery revenues fail to keep pace with the cost of upkeep.

While the subject of cemetery planning can be complicated, this article will address some of the more basic issues that planning commissioners -- and professional planners -- should be aware of.

Assess the Capacity of Existing Cemeteries

How many cemeteries are in or around your community and what is their remaining capacity? If your community is among those having limited (or no) land for new cemetery space within its jurisdiction, it may be necessary to take a regional perspective toward addressing residents' future needs.

Assessing capacity is usually straightforward; but there are some factors that need to be considered. People often assume that cemeteries are owned and managed by some form of governmental or religious entity and when the time comes to make burial plans, space will be available for them. Few realize that many cemeteries are commercial ventures owned by corporations, or are owned by religious, ethnic, or other organizations. They may have policies that limit certain types of interments, and may also choose not to be forthcoming with information about their capacity or future plans. See Table, Forecasting Capacity.

In contrast, cemetery commissions -- typically accountable to the local governing body -- oversee many, if not most, municipally owned cemeteries. Local cemetery commissions will have information regarding the capacity of public cemeteries, but not necessarily of religious or other privately owned cemeteries.

Forecast Need

One way to forecast need is to look at the likely mortality rate of the current and projected population. Most state health departments produce statistical mortality rates for the different jurisdictions they serve. However, this figure alone will not translate into the number of burials that will be needed in the next 10, 20, or 100 years. The number of residents who have moved away and want to be buried "back home" may or may not be offset by others in the community seeking to be buried elsewhere.

Illustration by Paul Hoffman for Planning for Cemeteries article
Illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb

Some communities, particularly those which attract tourists, have found that their rural cemetery lots are being purchased by people from larger metropolitan areas, in part because of their quaint charm and because they are often much less expensive. As a result, some cemetery organizations have adopted policies limiting sales of lots to residents or descendants of former residents.

It is also important to consult with funeral industry professionals in your area regarding the trend toward cremation or other alternatives, as this can affect the current and future need for cemetery space. See Sidebar, Cremation Trends.

... article continues over next 7 pages with an overview of a variety of issues in planning for cemeteries, including historic cemeteries; NIMBYism; zoning; and long-term maintenance.

 

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