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More Space and More Money: Birmingham Looks to Improve Greenwood Cemetery

With residents asking for plots at Birmingham's historic cemetery, but no where to put them, the city considers adding grave plots at Greenwood and setting up an endowment fund.

There's a waiting list of more than 100 Birmingham residents who want to be buried in Greenwood Cemetery, the historic cemetery on Oak that serves as the final resting place for Martha Baldwin and many more of the city's most lauded citizens from the past 200 years.

Unfortunately, there's no room left.

That's why the city of Birmingham is embarking on a project to improve Greenwood Cemetery, including finding more burial space and identifying ways to increase revenue and decrease the cost to taxpayers.

At the Oct. 29 City Commission meeting, commissioners heard a report from L.F. Sloane Consulting Group, Inc. — a professional cemetary consulting firm — that outlined the current state of Greenwood and ways the cemetery could better serve Birmingham residents.

Cemetery brings in $7,500 in revenue in 2011, grave reclamation hits dead end

Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1821 on donated land and was managed by a non-profit until operations and maintenance were taken over by the city in 1946.

Despite its age, L.F. Sloane representatives said Greenwood is in good shape, with the records maintained by the City Clerk and burials provided by the Department of Public Services (DPS). Lawn care at the cemetery was outsourced last year.

Due to the lack of space, the consultant said the only revenue the city receives from the cemetery are in modest service fees — around $7,500 in 2011. Meanwhile, the DPS spends around $12,000 a year in labor costs at the cemetery, while the price for lawn care is $18,000 a year.

At the January 2012 long-term planning session, City Clerk Laura Broski noted the city would be conducting an inventory of all the Greenwood grave plots to determine which are still empty. If a plot is empty, Broski said her office would contact the owner to ask whether it can be reclaimed — and thus re-sold — by the city.

According to the consultant's report, no graves at Greenwood have yet been reclaimed this year.

What the city could do: increase fees, add more burial spots

Increase prices:

L.F. Sloane noted that Greenwood's fee schedule could be updated to reflect current market prices.

"The current service fees at $600 for a casketed burial and $150 for the internment of cremated remains are well below what area cemeteries are charging," the report reads.

Allow for cremated remains to be buried in a grave along with a casket:

According to the consultant's report, the city could also allow grave plot owners to bury up to two cremated remains at the site, even if a casket is already buried there.

As part of the consultant's proposed fees, Birmingham could charge up to $750 for the internment of cremated remains. In addition, the city could sell the right to bury cremated remains in an occupied grave for $750 each.

Should someone to bury cremated remains in an occupied grave site, it would then cost them $1,500. Should this happen 10 times a year, that equals a yearly revenue of $15,000.

Add new grave plots, build columbarium:

A diagonal road in the cemetery's northeast corner could also be removed, the consultant's report reads, so that the property can be used for additional burial sites.

According to the report, should the area be developed properly, the city could build a columbarium — a structure used to house cremated remains — with 288 niche spaces inside. Removal of the road could also result in 80 new burial sites, many of which could be developed with pre-installed vaults that would double each site's burial capacity. 

According to the report, this development could be completed for $250,000-$300,000, while there's a potential the city could see $1.2 million in revene from the sale of the burial plots and niche spaces in the columbarium.

Create an endowment fund:

The report also recommends establishing an endowment fund that would eventually pay for the continued upkeep of the cemetery — a move that would take the burden off taxpayers.

Since the annual fee to maintain the cemetary is generally around $30,000 a yaer, the report recommends establishing a $720,000 endowment fund over a 10-year period. With a 4 percent return rate, the fund could maintain the cemetery in perpetuity.

What the city should not do: buy new land

What the city should probably not consider, however, is purchasing adjacent lots on Oak and Lakeside, a suggestion introduced by Commissioner Rackeline Hoff at a city commisison meeting in late March.

"In our opinion, the cemetery should not be expanded into adjacent vacant lots," the report reads. "The lot to the northwest of the cemetery would not be accessible from the cemetery due to the presence of burials along the entire edge of the cemetery. The lot on Oak is accessible, however, it would be an awkward area to utilize."

"Additionally, it may be costly to acquire, properly fence, lay out and landscape (the lot on Oak)," the report adds, noting the adjacent lot on Oak costs $500,000.

Commissioners looking for more input

While city commissioners took no action on the report's recommendations last Monday, Hoff was worried that before Birmingham does anything, it should get more feedback from residents.

"It seems to me that we should let our residents be aware of it," Hoff said. "There are residents who are interested and might have some input."

As part of its report on Greenwood, L.F. Sloane sent surveys to the 104 families with people on the waiting list. Sixty percent of those surveys were returned.

According to the surveys, 93 percent said they were still interested in being buried in Greenwood Cemetery, with 54 percent looking to have a full burial.

Of those who indicated they want to be cremated, 74 percent said they wanted their remains to be buried in the ground (as opposed to houses in a columbarium), though 73 percent of those wishing to be cremated said they would be interested in being buried in a spot already occupied by a casket.

As for now, the city commission directed city staff to study the report and create a final recommendation for the commission at a later date.

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