A grave situation: City finds itself in the cemetery business

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, May 26, 2013

— Janesville city staff never thought they'd be hawking gravesite specials, trimming grass around 26,000 tombstones or considering the benefits of a heated steel shroud to thaw the ground for winter burials.

Those duties and more have passed to the city since the Oak Hill Cemetery Association dissolved in 2009 because of financial difficulties. State statutes require that local governments care for abandoned cemeteries.

Adopting the orphan cemetery means a city subsidy of more than $80,000 in 2013 and upcoming expenses to care for the deteriorating chapel.

Jean Wulf, city treasurer, acknowledged she never expected to be selling gravesites, but her office now oversees the transactions.

Parks Director Tom Presny remembers taking a drive through the cemetery at 1725 N. Washington St. after learning his department would be caring for it.

"I was surprised by how large and how extensive the burials were, how many graves there are out there," Presny said.

The cemetery added 96 acres to the park department's responsibilities.

Interim City Manager Jay Winzenz said the cemetery association's financial woes deepened as people began choosing cremation over burial and as interest income from the cemetery's perpetual care fund dropped with the recession.

The cemetery association had $300,000 when it transferred ownership to the city.

"I think the cemetery association wanted to turn it over to us probably a little bit before it actually happened," Winzenz said.

City staff did not look forward to the transition.

"We've got levy limits, other competing needs," Winzenz said. "The last thing we need is to be taking on additional operating expenses.

"In the end, we didn't have any choice."

The city also maintains the Dillenbeck Cemetery, a burial spot near Target off Highway 14.

"It wouldn't surprise me if, in the long run, we end up with an additional cemetery or two," Winzenz said.

Presny said the care of cemeteries regularly falls to cities and towns nationwide. Many are older, full cemeteries with depleted perpetual care funds, no new burials and, therefore, no revenue.

"The unique thing about Oak Hill is we have plenty of land for new plots and gravesites," Winzenz said.

The cemetery is half full and has about 24,000 available gravesites.

The adjacent Mount Olivet Cemetery, supported by the Catholic Church, is almost filled.

Oak Hill arrived at the city's doorstep with revenue but also with costs.

In 2013, Janesville budgeted cemetery operating expenses of about $235,000. Revenue from burials and grave sales totals about $151,000 a year, leaving the city subsidy at about $84,000.

The city bought new grounds equipment and replaced pickup trucks, snowplows and an excavator.

Prensy figures many Janesville residents still don't know the city takes care of Oak Hill.

Even city council members at a recent study session were taken aback to hear the city was advertising a gravesite special: Buy one at full price and get the second one half off.

It sounds morbid, but marketing is part of what the city needs to do, Winzenz said.

"It's a business at this point," he said.

Gravesite sales help reduce the city subsidy.

Maintenance falls to the parks department, and two of the cemetery's caretakers were hired as city employees after the transfer.

"It's a highly specialized occupation, and you certainly have to have the desire to be in that environment," Presny said.

The men have knowledge of the cemetery layout and the existing burials.

Workers must be sure they bury someone in the proper location, which can be difficult when the ground is covered with snow.

Lawn maintenance is a "never ending task," Presny said. "It starts on Monday and ends on Friday and starts on Monday all over again."

Other parks employees shift to help at the cemetery before busy times, such as Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July, Mother's Day and Father's Day.

"There's always a big push to get the cemetery looking as good as possible prior to Memorial Day," Presny said.

A part-time employee also works in the office.

The city is responsible for the cemetery infrastructure and lawn care. It is not responsible for gravestone care, Presny said.

Staff might try to prop up leaning tombstones, but the city doesn't care for disintegrating sandstone markers.

"Then the question (is), ‘What happens after all the family members are deceased?'" Presny asked. "Who provides that care?

"Essentially, that's an unanswered question."

Last updated: 10:32 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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