Burial trends change as Bowling Green cemeteries fill


Fairview Cemetery II is the only city-managed cemetery in Bowling Green where burial plots are available to purchase.

By Nicole Ziege

The evening sun creates golden hues over the tombstones in Fairview Cemetery II as it descends into the west. Soft high-pitched tones from wind chimes ring out throughout the cemetery. The stones are decorated with various kinds of flowers—one with two shiny wreaths on either side, another resting beneath a bouquet of blue and red roses, and a third with an artificial bouquet of yellow, red and purple colors lying upon it.

In a section located along the far left of the cemetery in front of the tall green-painted chain-link fence, which marks the property’s perimeter, teddy bears, Mickey Mouse figurines and small porcelain angels decorate the graves of children who died between the ages of one day old to six months old. Flowers and adornments like these were brought in by loved ones and placed at their respective graves throughout the summer, fall and winter seasons of 2017 and into 2018. Although it is March 2018, the air of Bowling Green, Kentucky, is frigid at 32 degrees. The engines of the vehicles passing along Fairview Avenue rumble and echo in the quiet space.

Fairview Cemetery II is one of six cemeteries managed by the city of Bowling Green, Kentucky. The other five include Fairview Cemetery I—which is located across the street from Fairview Cemetery II—Mount Moriah Cemetery, Pioneer Cemetery, Covington Family Cemetery and St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery.

As of February 2018, Fairview Cemetery II was the only remaining city-owned cemetery with available burial plots, with only around 1,400 remaining. If the city does not act soon, it will most likely run out of available plots to sell in five years.

Brent Belcher, 47, became the director of Bowling Green Parks and Recreation in 2012, and he said that since that year, it has not been a secret that the Bowling Green cemeteries were running out of available plots to sell. He described it as a sense of urgency and compared it to global warming.

“We know it’s coming,” Belcher said. “At what point do we want to act, and what is the action going to take?”

Cemetery Division Manager Cathy Maroney, 53, of Bowling Green, has overseen all six of the cemeteries since September 2017, but she said this issue has been a topic of conversation for many years.

Fairview Cemetery I and II are two of the six city-managed cemeteries in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“During my monthly reports, I have to tell them how many graves are left,” Maroney said. “Each year, the numbers get lower and lower.” There were 304 burials that took place at Fairview I and II last year, which increased from about 295 burials in 2016, and the city cemeteries hold an average of about four burials a week, Maroney said.

Although Bowling Green was founded in 1798, cemeteries in the city have been in use since around 1811 with Pioneer Cemetery, which is one of the city’s historical sites. Due to the outbreak of the Civil War, the cemetery began filling up with soldiers who died of of consumption, bowel disease, heart disease, typhoid fever, railroad accidents and gun accidents. In addition to the Civil War, soldiers from the War of 1812 and the Mexican War were also buried there. By 1861, Pioneer Cemetery was almost to capacity, and it closed in 1878.

Mount Moriah Cemetery opened in 1862, and it is one of the oldest predominantly-African-American cemeteries in Warren County, Kentucky. However, there are no longer burial plots being sold there.

Fairview Cemetery I opened in 1868 under ownership of Bowling Green, and as it began to reach capacity in 1954, the city purchased land across Fairview Avenue for Fairview Cemetery II. The two cemeteries cover 109 acres in total.

Today, no available plots remain in Fairview Cemetery I, but there are still burial services that take place there because some of the plots that were sold have not yet been filled.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery dates back to 1869. Although it cannot expand at its current location, the Cemetery Foundation at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which started in the 1970s, voted to build more mausoleums and columbariums with crypts and niches in order to accommodate for members of the church who wished to be cremated. Two 96-niche columbariums were constructed—the first in 2003 and the second in 2009—and the third columbarium to accommodate 120 niches was constructed in 2017.

Bowling Green is not alone in its issue with overcrowding. Cemeteries across the United States have been forced to deal with the reality that its cemeteries may soon be reaching capacity. In Ohio, new burials were suspended at Williamsville Cemetery in Delaware County because the grounds of the cemetery had reached its useful capacity, according to the Dayton Daily News on Dec. 17, 2016. In Tampa, Florida, cemeteries like the L’Unione Italiana Cemetery have run out of space, according to the Tampa Tribune on April 6, 2011.

Like many cemeteries in the United States, there is not a way to expand the area of the cemeteries in Bowling Green because all of its cemeteries are landlocked next to residential areas. Located next to Fairview Cemetery II, for example, is Fairview Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, a set of apartment complexes called “The Enclave” and Kereiakes Park. Because of this, the city only has two options to solve the problem, and the first would be to construct mausoleums, which would allow around 300 available burial spaces.

A mausoleum is a building that is designed for burying a casket above ground, where the casket is placed into a crypt that is designed for one or two people, according to the National Funeral Directors’ Association.

Since the cemeteries are landlocked, Maroney described their next step as similar to building onto a city: “You can’t sprawl out. You have to go up.” Maroney said that she and other city officials were working on adding the funds for building mausoleums to the budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

The second option proposed for the city of Bowling Green would be to purchase land elsewhere. “Land is expensive,” Maroney said. “The city may not opt to do that. It has to be within the city limits, and land has become very scarce within the city limits now.”

Another more short-term solution Maroney spoke of, which she and the city have already started looking into, included an old statute in Kentucky’s legislation—Kentucky Revised Statute 381.715, which stipulates that if a gravesite is sold and then not used for 100 years, the plot can return to the owner if the owner proves that the grave has not been used. Using this statute, Maroney may be able to recover a few hundred available plots in Fairview Cemetery I and Fairview Cemetery II.

In her office located in the administrative building next to Fairview Cemetery II, Maroney sits with a pile of logbooks on her desk, a collection of about seven Snoopy figurines behind her on her bookcase. The books are for the Fairview Cemetery I and II, and they date back to the beginning of Fairview Cemetery I in 1868. Maroney reads the entries of burial plots that were sold and then walks to the locations of the sold burial plots to make sure the records of the burial plot sales were logged correctly. After verifying, she puts the records one-by-one into the online cemetery database.

Another challenging aspect of this process is that there is no requirement for purchasing a headstone with a burial plot. Therefore, burial plots might be sold, and then there may not be an indication of that plot already being sold because there might not be a headstone on that plot.

If there are no headstones in the area of those potentially open grave sites, the cemetery employees must use ground radars to prove whether or not there is indeed someone buried in that site.

If the grave sites are found to be empty, Maroney and other cemetery officials must contact the descendants of the person who purchased the grave sites to ask if they want the burial site. If there are no descendants or if the descendants choose not to use the burial site, then the available site is returned to the city.

Another short-term option for the city is providing more niches for the increasing number of Americans who are choosing cremation over traditional burial, which is burial inside a casket. A cremation niche is a burial space located above ground and usually within a mausoleum, where an urn which contains a person’s cremated remains is placed inside and sealed.

There has been a recent trend of people in the United States choosing to be cremated rather than be traditionally buried inside a casket. More than half of the population is choosing to be cremated, which has increased from just over 33 percent of the population in 2006 and about 42 percent in 2011, according to the Cremation Association of North America, and if this trend continues, it will reach 56 percent by 2020 and around 71 percent by 2030.

While more people are being cremated in the United States, however, the trend has not affected Kentucky nearly as much. In 2016, Kentucky ranked among the states with the lowest percentages of cremations, between 0-30 percent, along with Alabama and Louisiana. Therefore, while cremation is taking some of the pressure off of cemeteries in states like Nevada and Washington—which rank among the highest percentages of cremation in the U.S. with 71 percent, the same is not the case for cemeteries in Kentucky.

Despite Kentucky’s low ranking, Johnson-Vaughn-Phelps Funeral Home Manager Eric Phelps, 55, said he has noticed this trend himself.

Phelps’s father owns Johnson-Vaughn-Phelps Funeral Home, and Phelps grew up around his father’s work and funeral services. He said that working at his father’s funeral home was something he had always thought about doing, and he decided to work there about five and half years ago.

The funeral home stands at the corner of Lehman Avenue and Fairview Avenue in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Phelps sits at his glossy wooden desk at his softly-lit office in the back of the funeral home, where he has met with many clients to make their funeral arrangements.

Phelps said one of the biggest reasons why people choose cremation is because of the cost difference.

In 2017, the national average price of an adult funeral with a viewing service and burial totaled to $7,360, while the national average of an adult funeral with a viewing of the body prior to its cremation was $6,260, which is a difference of $1,100, according to the National Funeral Directors’ Association.

For the Johnson-Vaughn-Phelps Funeral Home, which is right up the street from Fairview Cemetery I and II, the cost of a funeral service with a traditional burial depends on different variables, such as the type of casket, how ornate the casket is and other merchandise selected.

Despite those variables, he said prices of a funeral service with a traditional burial ranged from $8,500-10,000, whereas direct cremation—where a person is cremated and their cremains are returned to the family—would be about $2,700-3,000.

Another reason why people sometimes make the choice for cremation is due to its simplicity, but Phelps said the process of cremation is actually more involved and more complicated than many initially consider.

Phelps said the paperwork for cremation is more involved, and there are more options in terms of what to do with the cremains, which is the term used for a person’s cremated remains.

“What I tell families is that it’s great because it gives you a lot of options, and it’s bad because it gives you a lot of options,” Phelps said.

Families with cremains have the option to scatter them completely, scatter half of them and keep the rest, store them at home and bury them. However, they can also choose more extravagant options, like turning cremains into jewelry or memorial keepsakes.

Another reason for the rise of cremation could be from the new rules issued by the Vatican in an official statement in 2016, which granted Catholics permission to be cremated following death. After being cremated, however, the cremains were not allowed to be scattered, separated between loved ones or kept at home.

Father Gary Clark, who is the parochial vicar (associate pastor) of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bowling Green, said that the Vatican banned cremation for most of its 2,000-year history because of its belief in the importance of the body.

Father Gary Clark is the parochial vicar (associate pastor) at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“There was a strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body,” said Clark, 41, of Leitchfield, Kentucky. “They believed that the body was necessary for salvation.”

Clark said the Vatican also prohibited cremation because of its connection to pagans, which are followers of a polytheistic nature-worshipping religion.

“There was a stigma that pagans burned the bodies of those who had died,” said Clark.

Clark said he has also noticed an increase in cremations. Although he wants to be buried traditionally at his home parish, Clark said he thinks it is a good option for Catholics because of its lower price.

Cathy Maroney, Fairview Cemetery Division Manager, has also noticed the trend of people choosing cremation over traditional burials. However, those who choose cremation often still bury the cremains in a cemetery. Cremation urns can be buried on top of or in between casket burial sites, and up to six cremains can fit on top of a casket burial: two at the head, two at the middle and two at the feet. Families have begun burying like this as a symbolic way to stay close to one another, Maroney said.

There are two areas at Fairview Cemetery II designated for cremains within a mausoleum, and city officials are planning on building at least two more mausoleums to accommodate more cremains.

Maroney has also found that many are choosing cremation because of cost.

“Our younger generation doesn’t have that need to feel like they have to be buried in a very ceremonial, in a very flamboyant way to where they have to have the bells and whistles,” said Maroney.

Maroney’s father, 90, of Bowling Green, plans to be traditionally buried beside his wife, but Maroney said she wants to be cremated. One reason for her decision is its simplicity. Much of her decision, however, came following the Vatican’s permission of cremation for Catholics around the world.

“The Catholic faith allows me to do it now,” said Maroney. “Had it not, I probably would have been a traditional burial.”

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