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Sunday, December 25, 2016

"No Vacancy?": Filling Up the Cemeteries

Development pushes up against Williamsville Cemetery, off Orange Centre Drive near U.S. Route 23 in Orange Township. The graveyard is closed to new burials. 

Cemeteries have only so much space. And yet with an endless supply of new customers, they rarely have to put up "no vacancy" signs.

Last week, tiny Williamsville Cemetery in Orange Township essentially did that, declaring that it was suspending new burials because the grounds had reached their useful capacity.

"It's an old, aged cemetery," said Lee Bodnar, Orange Township's administrator. "When it was originally laid out, the plots were significantly smaller than are required today, and because of its age, we were concerned about disrupting an existing grave."

Few have requested burial there in recent years, said Bodnar. The township's Africa Cemetery has ample future capacity for those who do.

But the burial stoppage underscores a growing concern: the aging population and limited land use.

"Eventually, all cemeteries will have to consider this," said Scott Harmon, president of the Ohio Cemetery Association. "It's going to be an obstacle that each township will have to explore."

Operators treat cemetery grounds much like miniature housing developments, with engineering, landscape design and master plans, said Harmon, who operates Dover Cemetery in Tuscarawas County.

Pre-purchased burial plots and the uncertain timing of death can create planning challenges, said Harmon, who said he has not heard of many cemeteries closing people out. The Dover Cemetery should have capacity for at least another 100 years.

The Ohio Department of Commerce keeps a registry of Ohio's 4,000 public and private cemeteries, but it doesn't track when they reach capacity or have to turn away business, said spokeswoman Lindsey Burnworth.

A national expert said cemeteries were built long ago, driven by supply and demand, to be near people and to serve them for generations.

"They're the only business that has to service what they sell forever," said Robert Fells, executive director and general counsel of the Virginia-based International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, a national trade association. Most have endowment care accounts composed of a percentage of revenue that must go toward perpetual maintenance.

When cemeteries become landlocked, as often happens in urban areas, "we call them dormant cemeteries, when they run out of spaces," Fells said. But many in rural areas "have so much acreage, that even 200 years from now they will not have used it all," he said.

The rise of cremation has taken some of the pressure off cemetery land, Fells said.

"The cremation rate is nationally about 50 percent," he said. "That alone has extended the useful life of many cemeteries."

Funeral directors point to options other than burial, including columbaria that store ashes, said Melissa Sullivan, executive director of the Ohio Funeral Directors Association. Cemeteries, she said, likely will have to expand into less-developed areas eventually.

"Are you having to move further out? Probably," she said. "But we still have quite a bit of ground, and we're having more and more choices."