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South suburbs running out of cemetery space

 The only public cemetery in town is down to a handful of available gravesites. Town Meeting authorized $500,000 in the spring to expand the cemetery, which was first used in the 1600s and includes the grave of famed lifesaver Joshua James and opera singer Bernice James De Pasquali.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

HULL VILLAGE CEMETERY: The only public cemetery in town is down to a handful of available gravesites. Town Meeting authorized $500,000 in the spring to expand the cemetery, which was first used in the 1600s and includes the grave of famed lifesaver Joshua James and opera singer Bernice James De Pasquali.

HULL — Joseph Stigliani has more than a morbid interest in the health of the residents of this peninsula town: He operates the municipal Hull Village Cemetery, and he’s running out of space.

“Unfortunately, we’re getting low on graves — we have probably less than 20, and we average between 40 and 50 burials per year,” said Stigliani, director of Hull’s Department of Public Works. “I’m just scrambling to find space on the edges. We’re under the gun” to expand.

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It’s a scenario playing out across the region — from Dedham to Norwell, and Westwood to Plymouth — as public cemeteries grapple with accommodating the needs of the dead. By state law, every Massachusetts town must “provide one or more suitable places for the interment of persons dying within its limits.”

“We’re not running out of cemetery space per se; we’re running out in specific locations,” said David Walkinshaw, spokesman for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association.

The task of creating more space can be daunting, with communities dealing with everything from the high cost of land to the complicated demands of environmental rules.

Fifteen years after it was first proposed, the town broke ground this summer onanew cemetery, Stetson Meadows, to replace the at-capacity Washington Street Cemetery, which has about 25 spaces left. The plan was stalled by the discovery of protected Eastern box turtles on the site; the town had to build them a sanctuary before cemetery construction could start.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

NORWELL: Fifteen years after it was first proposed, the town broke ground this summer onanew cemetery, Stetson Meadows, to replace the at-capacity Washington Street Cemetery, which has about 25 spaces left. The plan was stalled by the discovery of protected Eastern box turtles on the site; the town had to build them a sanctuary before cemetery construction could start.

In Norwell, the quest to build a new cemetery — Stetson Meadows — on 21 acres of conservation land off Stetson Shrine Lane took about 15 years, according to Norwell Cemetery Commission chairwoman Lynne Rose.

The town’s existing Washington Street Cemetery has about 25 spaces left, enough to last until spring 2015, she said.

The pace to build a new one was slowed, ironically, by the presence of protected Eastern box turtles at the new cemetery site. The town had to buy land elsewhere and build the turtles a new habitat before work could start this summer on the cemetery, which is scheduled to open next spring, Rose said.

“Hopefully, all the residents, including the turtles and deer, will be happy,” she said. “This should give the town about 10 to 12 years before they will need to think about expanding further.”

In Quincy, the sticking point is snakes. The city has been trying for years to get permission to expand its Pine Hill Cemetery without disturbing the nearby habitat of rare and protected rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills.

“It’s a pretty complicated process, and we’re hopeful we’ll have the permits in place by the end of the year to move forward,” said Christopher Cassani, executive director of Quincy’s Cemetery Department.

Meanwhile, as they do in a number of other cities and towns, Quincy is selling graves at Pine Hill on an “as needs basis,” Cassani said. “We used to be able to sell ahead.”

Some communities have encountered fewer hurdles to provide graves.

Westwood, which began operating its first town cemetery in 1752 at what is now called the Old Westwood Cemetery, where Robert Steele, the drummer boy of the Battle of Bunker Hill, is buried, opened the New Westwood Cemetery across the street in 1979 – with enough acreage for future growth.

The cemetery expanded in 1993, and Westwood is about to sign a contract to open another section in what is now woods, said Brendan Ryan, operations manager for the town’s Department of Public Works.

As in many other new cemeteries, Ryan said the added area would include columbaria to hold urns for cremains — reflecting the growing trend toward cremation in the town and the state.

Nearly 30 percent of the dead in Massachusetts are now cremated, according to Thomas Daly, a national cemetery consultant and spokesman for the Massachusetts Cemetery Association. Because cremains take up less space than coffins, “designing for cremation helps give longevity to cemeteries,” he said.

Dedham has been working for the past two years on expanding its Brookdale Cemetery — which is “about two years out from being at capacity” — and is close to being done, said cemetery Superintendent Daniel Tobin. The new section will provide more than 100 gravesites in the 19th-century cemetery where roughly 28,000 people already are buried, Tobin said.

More rest in Dedham’s two historic and closed cemeteries: the Dedham’s Village Cemetery and the Baby Cemetery, which Tobin said was used to bury the children of the town’s paupers.

Some communities are in better shape when it comes to having space in their cemeteries. In Norwood, for example, cemetery foreman Paul Ranalli estimates Highland Cemetery, which sees about 200 burials a year, has about 17 years’ worth of graves remaining, and space to expand for another “legitimate 20 years of development.”

“The founding fathers of Norwood knew what they were doing,” Ranalli said.

Plymouth also planned ahead, said Ted Bubbins, superintendent of the town’s cemeteries and crematory. While Plymouth is no longer selling plots at most of its 32 public cemeteries, Bubbins said there’s still “a fair amount” of space at Vine Hills Cemetery, which saw its first burial in 1803. Vine Hills also houses a crematory, which opened in 2009.

The town is in the planning stage of building a new cemetery on 80 acres of woods off Route 80, Bubbins said. Designing the Parting Ways Cemetery should take about a year, he said; if Town Meeting approves the funding, construction would be done in phases, an acre or two at a time.

Hull faces a more challenging deadline, with only “a handful of graves” now available in the Hull Village Cemetery, said Town Manager Philip Lemnios.

Hull Town Meeting authorized a $500,000 bond in May to expand the town’s only public burial ground, but preliminary engineering indicates that the work could take a year to 18 months, he said.

In the meantime, the town is looking into immediately installing columbaria for up to 100 cremated remains, according to Stigliani. “And we’re looking at graves that were sold long ago and have not been used, to see if [legally] we can resell them,” he said.

The plans are little consolation to a recent visitor to the scenic burial ground — located just below Fort Revere at the far end of the Hull peninsula and first used in the 1600s. Theresa White was looking for a final resting place for the cremated remains of her partner, Anthony Micherone, who died on Aug. 8 at age 63.

“They showed me four plots, and we didn’t like any of them,” White said. ”Anthony would love the higher ground. So we’re going to wait till something else opens up. Anthony was cremated, so we have a little time. If I were doing a traditional burial, it would be more upsetting.

“I live in the area, so we knew there wasn’t a lot of space” in the cemetery, she added. “We also knew you couldn’t purchase a plot until time of need. We didn’t realize [town officials] waited so long to open up new areas. It’s just a little unsettling.”

BROOKDALE CEMETERY, DEDHAM: Dedham plans to openanew section of its Brookdale Cemetery soon. The Village Cemetery and Baby Cemetery are inactive; the latter was used to bury the infants of pauper families.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

BROOKDALE CEMETERY, DEDHAM: Dedham plans to openanew section of its Brookdale Cemetery soon. The Village Cemetery and Baby Cemetery are inactive; the latter was used to bury the infants of pauper families.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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