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Phoenix area face lack of cemetery space

By Amy B. Wang

The Arizona Republic

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 1:10 a.m. MDT

The City of Mesa Cemetery in Mesa, Ariz., is seen on Sept. 5, 2012. The Phoenix area, among the youngest metropolitan areas in the nation, is facing a new problem as it ages: planning for the dead. There are a limited number of cemeteries owned and operated by cities in the metropolitan Phoenix.

The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PHOENIX — The Phoenix area, among the youngest metropolitan areas in the nation, is facing a new problem as it ages: planning for the dead.

As Valley cities begin to run out of land, plans to attract cemeteries appear to be non-existent. As people grow older and develop deeper roots with their communities, some residents may find that they may not be able to be laid to rest in their adopted hometowns.

Phoenix and most other Valley cities have taken a hands-off approach to cemeteries, allowing religious groups and the private sector to dictate where cemeteries are developed. Some say there will always be space available for burials, but new cemeteries may merely be more inconveniently located.

Others argue that cemeteries are as integral to a community as a park or a school and that cities should plan for them just as they would other key services.

Cities plan libraries, parks, roads and schools. They go out of their way to attract hospitals, universities, corporations and small businesses.

But the conversation falls silent about the one service that every resident, sooner or later, is guaranteed to need.

Phoenix, the sixth-largest city in the nation, has only one public cemetery, Pioneer and Military Memorial Park, which is no longer active.

"We're just not in the cemetery business," said Debra Stark, planning director for Phoenix. "It's more of a private-sector and church kind of thing."

City officials do not keep track of the number of other cemeteries in Phoenix, but there are at least 10 within city limits, some tiny ones affiliated with religious groups and others with privately owned businesses.

Phoenix's largest cemetery, the privately run, 192-acre Greenwood Memory Lawn still has about 125,000 burial spots available, at about 75 percent occupancy.

"I guess we just haven't thought of it yet as a real critical issue," Stark said.

Glendale, Mesa, Tempe and Buckeye each have one municipally run cemetery, but they are exceptions. Newer suburbs that have had the most growth recently, like Gilbert and Surprise, never got into the cemetery business.

Gilbert and Peoria have no public or private cemeteries. Chandler, the fourth-largest city in Arizona, has one private cemetery, with no plans to bring in more.

"We really haven't analyzed that because we haven't been asked to do it," said David de la Torre, principal planner for Chandler.

The city's only active cemetery, Valley of the Sun Mortuary, is about 35 years from capacity, according to management.

Ideally, there would be both public and private planning, said Frank Barrios, vice president of the Pioneers' Cemetery Association, a group dedicated to preserving historic Valley cemeteries.

"I would think the city's Planning Department would say, 'You know what? We're worried about the cemetery issue,' and somebody would talk to (the private company) and say, 'What are your plans for the future?' " Barrios said.

When Lois Norris Jackson, 77, and her husband moved to Mesa from Idaho in 1958, they immediately took to their new community. About a mile from their home was the Mesa Cemetery, with its rows of cypress trees jutting from the barren desert.

For Christmas in 1983, the couple wrapped large boxes and gifted each other burial plots at the Mesa Cemetery. To Lois, it was a natural extension of planning for anything, and they never considered choosing anyplace else.

"You're going to pass away sooner or later," she said. "When we moved here, we fell in love with Arizona. We raised our family here."

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