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Cemetery expansions face hurdles

Saugus is running out of space at Riverside Cemetery, but officials face opposition to a plan to acquire more space.
Saugus is running out of space at Riverside Cemetery, but officials face opposition to a plan to acquire more space.(Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)

Cities and towns are spending millions of dollars to expand cemeteries, as final resting places for the dead are becoming increasingly few, but in some cases the efforts are being met with resistance.

In Saugus, plans to add a 26.6-acre plot of land to Riverside Cemetery on Winter Street for more gravesites would rob the town of one of its few remaining undeveloped pieces of green space. But unless voters approve the transfer, argued Dennis Gould, longtime chairman of the Saugus Cemetery Commission, many lifelong residents will face the prospect of being laid to rest elsewhere, since Riverside is the only cemetery in town besides a small cemetery for veterans nearby.

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“We don’t have any options,” he said. “The cemetery is running out of space.”

Marblehead and Salem are also running out of cemetery space, while Billerica and Burlington have made changes to their existing grounds to accommodate more people.

Compounding the shortage is the increasing demand for burial sites as the baby boom generation moves through its golden years, cemetery officials said.

Some predict the yearly death rate could nearly double in the next two decades.

The historic 17-acre Riverside Cemetery, built in the 1840s, is almost full. A Town Meeting in the next few months will decide whether to transfer 26.6 acres of the 63-acre Curley property, which abuts Breakheart Reservation, to the cemetery commission.

Two previous efforts to devote the land for use as a cemetery have failed, but a referendum on the ballot in November narrowly passed and Gould is hoping to convince residents that the land transfer is needed.

Nearly 1,500 people are buried at Riverside — where plots cost about $1,800 each. While the commission has made modifications in recent years to maximize available space,

Gould said there are only about 170 gravesites remaining. He said the Curley property, which has about 10 acres of wetlands, is the only suitable parcel for use as a cemetery.

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But the plans have put the cemetery at odds with the school district, which wants to retain the site for a possible future school, or at least as open space.

“We empathize with the cemetery commission’s dilemma, but there are no other parcels of land in town large enough to be used for a school,” said Wendy Reed, chairwoman of the Saugus School Committee, which opposes the land transfer.

“Our primary responsibility as a board is to the students of this school district.”

Reed said the town took the property by eminent domain in the 1970s and said the deed requires that the site be used for school or municipal purposes. “This was taken for school use following a long, drawn-out court battle,” she said.

The shortage of burial plots is part of a larger problem in the congested Northeast, where a scarcity of land, budgetary woes, and competing interests have often stymied communities’ efforts to acquire new property for expanding municipal graveyards.

In Marblehead, which still allows residents to pre-purchase burial plots at the Waterside Cemetery on West Shore Drive, there are about 11,525 bodies interred and gravesites also are running out. The town has several smaller cemeteries, including the historic but inactive Burial Hill where Revolutionary War General John Glover was buried 217 years ago, as well as a Catholic cemetery near the Salem border, which also has little room left.

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There are few options for Waterside to expand. It’s bordered by Salem Harbor, built-out residential neighborhoods, and pockets of state-protected wetlands.

Across the harbor, only one of Salem’s five cemeteries — Greenlawn — has spaces left, and city officials have predicted that they will run out in the next decade.

“In some towns, land that’s desirable for cemeteries is just not available,” said David Boyle, president of the Massachusetts Cemetery Association and superintendent of the Chelmsford Cemetery. “There are still large tracts of wetlands, but most of the land has been picked up by developers.’’

Chelmsford is one of the few towns north of Boston that has put aside enough land for adding new burial plots, which Boyle attributes to visionary planning.

“Fortunately, previous generations of leaders had the foresight to ensure that we had enough land for decades to come,” he said.

Saugus and other communities have stopped selling plots in advance in order to preserve what little inventory remains.

“You have to be a Saugus resident and pass away [for a family member] to buy one,” Gould said.

Boyle said most cemeteries have been increasing the number of cremation burials, which are less expensive than full casket interments and require less space. In some towns, including Chelmsford, the cremation rate has gone from about 15 percent to upward of 40 percent in just a few years, he said.

Many communities are adding columbariums — structures used for the storage of ash remains — which offer families the option of cremation instead of purchasing lots for caskets, he said. Others have reconfigured unsold burial plots to get more space out of the property. Some have even created nature preserves where loved ones can sprinkle the ashes of the departed and pay final respects.

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But the efforts to expand cemetery space have been hard fought.

In Burlington, it took officials years to secure funding to add more burial sites to Pine Haven Cemetery, which was built in the late 1990s, and the older and larger Chestnut Hill Cemetery, which had nearly run out of burial plots as efforts by the town’s cemetery commission to acquire new land were rejected.

One of the projects added roughly 800 gravesites to Pine Haven by allowing “double-deep’’ concrete vaults in a section that has not previously been used, according to town officials.

The expansion was finished last year using funds from a $1.2 million bond approved by Town Meeting in 2011.

In September, town voters approved plans to spend an estimated $250,000 to install a columbarium at Chestnut Hill Cemetery with at least 140 niche spaces. The project is expected to get underway sometime this year.

In neighboring Billerica, which has roughly 170 burials a year at Fox Hill Cemetery on Andover Road, town officials reconfigured hundreds of unsold plots to maximize space and added a wall where cremated ashes could be stored. The changes allowed the town to delay a costly land expansion for another decade.

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Cemetery directors said most communities have been slow to deal with the problem, which often takes a back seat to budget deficits, school construction, and other fiscal concerns.

“Eventually, we’re all going to run out of space,” Boyle said. “Then what?”


Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@ gmail.com.