June 9, 2007

Cemeteries cope with increasing cremations


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Jenn Twomey trims grass around some of the 15,000 grave markers in Cortland Rural Cemetery. The number of people choosing cremation over traditional burial has risen in recent years, decreasing revenue and changing practices at many cemeteries.CemeteriesPhotos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer      
A stained glass window is reflected in new glass-covered cases for urns in the chapel at Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Staff Reporter

Cemeteries have to adapt to a changing marketplace like any other business, and increases in the cremation rate over the past two decades have presented a challenge and begun to alter the way cemeteries operate.
The more than 40-acre Cortland Rural Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Cortland County, with more than 15,000 monuments and markers.
Superintendent Andy Palm said the cemetery’s interment rate of cremains — cremated remains of a body — held steady in the low 30 percent range for the past few years, but now is 58 percent.
“The basic opening fee for putting a casket in the ground is $560. You come in with a cremation of the same person, and that’s going to be $310,” Palm said Thursday as he stood in the foyer of the cemetery’s chapel. “So, if the percentage of cremations that you do rises by about 20 percent, and they cost about 60 percent less than a casket, then the decrease in the amount of revenue is significant.”
The cremation rate is projected to steadily increase.
About 28 percent of all deceased in the country are cremated each year now, according to the Cremation Association of North America, and the organization expects that the cremation rate will be about 35 percent in 2010 and nearly 43 percent in 2025 — a projected 1.4 million cremations each year.
The Division of Cemeteries within the state Department of State is well aware of the increase, said spokesman Eamon Moynihan, as is the entire industry.
“This is an issue — the increase in the number of people who are cremated — and it will have consequences that will play themselves out over time,” Moynihan said, declining to elaborate further on the subject.
Although he has not kept statistics, Brad Perkins, who has owned Perkins Funeral Home in Dryden since 1978, has noticed a marked shift.
“When we opened our crematorium, less than 10 percent of the deaths were cremated in Cortland and Tompkins County,” Perkins said Wednesday. “And it’s increased to a percentage now that’s higher than the national rate.”
The cremation rate in New York and New Jersey is about 33 percent, said a spokesman for Vestal Hills Memorial Park in Vestal.
Burial options for urns are less expensive than full body interments in cemeteries, but Perkins said most of his customers don’t base their decisions about cremation on economic considerations.
“The preference for cremation, I think, is related to the mobility of society. People are not staying settled in one spot, and living in a community and getting buried in that community as much as they used to,” Perkins said.
Jim Toolan, superintendent of the village of Homer-owned Glenwood Cemetery on Route 281, said the cemetery interred about double the number of cremains in the past five or six years.
Realizing the increasing cremation rate, Glenwood Cemetery opened up a cremains section two years ago, near the top of the cemetery’s hill, to utilize land too steep for full-body burials, Toolan said.
Meanwhile, Cortland Rural Cemetery has been converting an on-site chapel, built in 1922 but since replaced by the funeral home and denominational church, into a columbarium for the memorilization of cremains in their urns.
A line of crypts for caskets line the marble wall facing the side entranceway to the chapel, and a wooden chest for urns was installed several years ago. This year, the cemetery will make glass-fronted cases in the chapel available for urns.
The cases range from $800 in the wooden columbarium to $3,000 for a two-urn glass fronted case at mid-body level off the ground.
Eventually, more cremain niches will be installed around the chapel interior, Palm said. The next step is an outdoor columbarium that would house the cinerary urns within marble-covered niches.
Despite revisions to the cemetery’s strategy, Palm said he has had to cut maintenance workers in the short term.
In previous years, Palm had employed four maintenance workers and an office worker, in addition to himself. This year, he has only three employees, and all of them are working to try to keep up with the maintenance.
Nonprofit cemeteries depend on interest income earned through a permanent maintenance fund — what Palm calls “the endowment” — to become self-perpetuating and ensure the upkeep of the cemeteries.
Twenty-five percent of the lot sales at Cortland Rural Cemetery go into the permanent maintenance fund, Palm said.
Of the roughly $100,000 it takes to run the cemetery annually, $15,000 is generated by the interest from the permanent maintenance fund, and lot sales and monument installations help make up the difference.
Cortland Rural Cemetery has helped make up the revenue gap by leasing an acre of land to the SUNY Cortland Auxiliary Service Corp. for use as a parking lot.
With annual additions of at least $16,500 to the permanent maintenance fund and $15,000 to the cemetery’s operating costs, the 30-year lease will provide some extra income until the college restores the land to its original state and hands it back over to the cemetery.
“The only way to balance it is through increased donation, and figuring out a way to spend less money. Long term, we’re going to have to look at increasing our permanent maintenance funds,” Palm said, adding that the cemetery would likely be seeking increased donations.
“Ultimately, we’re optimistic that we’ll get to the other side of this and we’ll be in good shape, but we need support from folks right now.”
The 110-acre Vestal Hills Memorial Park has been increasing its options for cremation memorialization over the past few years, said Bill Hamilton, assistant to cemetery President Bernard Stoecklein.
Vestal Hills will begin construction of a scattering garden in the fall, which will include niches for cinerary urns as well as a memorial wall for those whose remains’ are scattered in the garden. This new feature supplements existing niches in mausoleums and columbariums.
“We have reacted in a positive way, we don’t feel as though cremation has affected the revenue streams because of the way we’ve reacted,” Hamilton said. “In the last 10 years, the maintenance and preservation funds have increased almost 300 percent.”
Rich Moylan, the treasurer of the New York State Association of Cemeteries and president of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, said the increase in cremations has added to the already precarious position of cemeteries in the state, especially upstate.
“We’re nearly filled to capacity here, so for us, the general shift to cremation is a good thing because we’ll be able to use our little remaining space more efficiently,” Moylan said. “A lot of the cemeteries in the state have serious financial issues, and this is just adding to the problem.”

Religious attitudes change

The Catholic Church lifted its prohibition on cremation in 1963, and the Cremation Association of North America currently estimates about 30 percent of those who are cremated are Catholic.
Some Catholics are still confused about the issue, said Mark Lazarowski, the director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Syracuse.
“The church doesn’t encourage cremation; it accepts it. If families have questions, which many do, they should call us,” Lazarowski said.
“I don’t think it’s a problem — I think it’s just a trend in the way America considers burial options,” Lazarowski said last week.
In the 27 years that Lazarowski has been with the diocese, he’s seen the cremation rate for Catholics in the Syracuse Diocese increase from less than 1 percent to 17 percent today.
For Jews, cremation is frowned upon in the more conservative sects, said Michael Weinstein, the High Holiday service leader for Cortland’s Temple Brith Sholom.
“After death, the body is still considered sacred,” Weinstein said. “It comes from the biblical verse and ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and that we shouldn’t hurry the natural process.”
The liberal Reform Jewish sects frown on the practice less than Conservative and Orthodox Jews, Weinstein said. A conservative, Weinstein said he would still preside over a funeral if cremation was the deceased’s choice.
“I think it’s something that my generation is starting to deal with. I think my parents generation actually did not practice it,” Weinstein said, adding he does not know of any Jews within his circle of friends and family who have been cremated. “I hear it from some relative once and a well, and they don’t want the hassle, but I don’t know how serious it is. In my family, it would be respected if somebody requested that.”

Cremation guidelines

Because cremated remains are left to the estate, family and friends, many people choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones at a special location. Others choose to let the ashes reside in the home.
But no matter what a grieving family’s initial decision, cemetery officials and the Cremation Association of North America recommend eventually placing cinerary urns in a permanent location.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people who choose cremation don’t choose any sort of memorialization. Too many people are scattering, keeping them on the shelf, and just don’t memorialize,” said Rich Moylan, treasurer of the New York State Association of Cemeteries and president of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. “That’s been an issue we face — we have a crematorium here, and we only keep about 15 to 20 percent of the cremations that we do here for permanent location.”
Andy Palm, superintendent of the Cortland Rural Cemetery, said he worries that cinerary urns are often left unrecognized in the corners of peoples’ homes.
“It’s a distressing time when you have to deal with a death, and you’re not always sure what to do with the remains,” Palm said.
It’s important that all friends and family members have the option to visit a tranquil place to reflect upon the deceased, said Mark Lazarowski, director of cemeteries for the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse.
“Even though cremation might be the decision of the family, it’s still in your best interest to bury those cremated remains, especially in a Catholic Cemetery if you’re Catholic,” Lazarowski said. “I have some people come in here and they scattered the ashes up in the Adirondacks, in the stream, and they come here a couple years later and they’re upset because they have no place to visit them.”
As owner of the Perkins Funeral Home in Dryden for nearly 30 years, Brad Perkins said he’s many families return, seeking a final resting place for the cremated remains of their loved ones.
“Yes, the cemeterians want the cemeteries to be used, but we also understand the benefit it serves the community, to have a final resting place,” Perkins said. “That is something I think that reflects our need for good mental health — that we have a place to be remembered, that we have a final resting place, where it’s protected and designated and won’t be overrun by a shopping mall.”
— Evan Geibel




Comptroller addresses local Democrats

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The state comptroller told a crowd of about 60 Democrats at the Community Restaurant Friday evening he is working to restore credibility to his office, ensure state pensions are financially secure and promote bipartisanship in state politics.
Thomas DiNapoli made his comments at the Cortland County Democratic Committee’s Annual Spring Gala.
Democrats in attendance, who consisted of Cortland area residents, local politicians and people looking to run for regional offices,  gathered to socialize and eat while listening to DiNapoli, Rep. Mike Arcuri and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton talk about their accomplishments and goals.
DiNapoli was making his first visit to Cortland ever, and one of his first visits to an upstate New York city since he started as comptroller in January.
He said he is starting to tour the state now that he is settled into his office. On Friday he said he has been busy trying to restore New Yorkers’ trust in the Comptroller’s Office.
His predecessor, Democrat Alan Hevesi, resigned in December while facing criticism for using state employees to transport his ailing wife.
DiNapoli said some ways he has tried to restore that trust is by living ethically himself, better overseeing of fire departments’ and fire districts’ finances and emphasizing online training on fiscal matters for board of education members.
DiNapoli said he also is working to boost the retirement pension fund to ensure state workers get their pensions. The fund has already increased from $140 billion to $155 billion since he became comptroller.
After his speech, Mary Stack, a Cortland resident who is retired after 20 years as a secretary at SUNY Cortland, said she appreciates DiNapoli’s emphasis on the pensions.
“I’m glad it’s in good hands,” Stack said about her pension.
Arcuri (D-Utica), during his speech to the crowd, emphasized his strong belief that American troops should be out of Iraq. He said unlike some other Democrats he voted against funding American troops in Iraq another        $90 billion without a withdrawal date for the troops.
County Legislator Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) said after the speech he very much respects Arcuri for holding his ground on that issue.
Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) spoke briefly about her focuses, such as funding for under-funded school districts such as Cortland and McGraw. She said she successfully lobbied the governor to provide unrestricted funds for those districts.
Some of the candidates for regional offices attending the event were Molly Fitzgerald, Norbert Higgins and Richard Rich, all who are running for one of three spots in the state Supreme Court’s 6th Judicial District.
Fitzgerald, an attorney in Binghamton, said she thinks incumbent Justice Phillip R. Rumsey, a Homer resident who is running for re-election, is a great guy, but she thinks it’s important for more women to be a Supreme Court judge. Of 10 judges in the 6th judicial district, only two are women, she said.


Homer board to review condo proposal

Staff Reporter

HOMER — A project to build 24 condominiums on Creal Road that has been in the works for three years and sparked public controversy will go before the village Planning Board on Monday.
The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Village Board Room in Town Hall.
The Planning Board may make a recommendation on whether to zone the project — Whispering Winds Development — Planned Development District-Residential, the zoning designation that the project’s developer wants to get before beginning the project, said Margo Yager, chair of the village Planning Board.
That depends on whether the board feels the developer — Elaine Olson, owner of EMO Real Estate — has provided it with sufficient plans, she said. Once the Planning Board provides a recommendation, the Village Board will vote on the zoning change.
The 9-acre parcel on which the project would be built is zoned R-1 residential.
The project, which would be one-third of a mile south of the corner of Creal Road and Route 281, would consist of 12 one-story buildings, each with two homes inside.
The project was up for the zoning change about a year and a half ago, and the Village Board turned down the proposal.
Board member Genevieve Suits said Friday the board voted down the proposal because it feared the PDDR could result in part commercial usage if the project were scaled down.
The board wants to keep that piece of land residential, she said.
Suits said the board had not realized that the zoning change would only allow for one type of use.