Phoenix area face lack of cemetery space

By Amy B. Wang

The Arizona Republic

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Carvel Gibson Jackson died in 2003, at age 76, after a battle with melanoma of the liver. The past nine years, Lois has visited regularly, sometimes bringing a chair and a sandwich to sit and consult with her husband about major decisions. It brings her peace, she said, and strolling through the cemetery has become a part of her routine.

"This," she said, motioning toward her husband's grave on a recent afternoon, "is home."

She had never considered being buried apart, and she cringes at what might have been had there not been enough space.

"I can't even imagine," Lois said, her voice catching. She glanced at the stone inscribed with both of their names and their wedding date -- April 4, 1956 -- and began to cry.

"The feeling of knowing that he's here, and I'm going to be with him, is just at this stage of the game most important."

It is this consideration -- that a cemetery can be just as beneficial a place for the living as it is for the deceased -- that some say is missing when it comes to city planning.

"I've always said this: Our cities don't really plan for cemeteries," said Gary Brown, president of the Diocese of Phoenix Catholic Cemeteries and Mortuaries. "I think that's a mistake. When the city runs out of space that cemeteries can acquire, the families have to go someplace else."

While cities may set aside space for parks as a public service, private cemetery developers compete for land. Land availability is the biggest barrier to developing a cemetery, Brown said.

"In the cemeteries and funeral business, land is going to become a problem regardless of cremation," Brown said.

As extreme examples, some pointed to New York and San Francisco, older cities where high-density populations and skyrocketing land values long ago pushed cemeteries outside of city limits.

Money is not the only reason for the stagnation in the number of cemeteries in the Valley. Burial plots have been downsized, as well.

But perhaps nothing has extended the life of cemeteries more than cremation, and Arizona has been among the leading states in this alternative to traditional burial. In 2011, the national rate for cremations in the U.S. was 42 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In Arizona, it was 62.7 percent, a figure that has stayed relatively stable over the past five years.

The trend is not surprising, given Arizona's concentration of snowbirds and transient residents who choose to be cremated in order to be more easily laid to rest elsewhere, said Barbara Kemmis, the association's executive director. The trend is also in keeping with the high cremation rates of many West Coast states, she said.

Cremated remains that are scattered, of course, take up no additional space in a cemetery, but there are some who want their cremains to be buried or placed in a permanent location. Arizona has become something of an innovative state in postcremation options, Kemmis said. Take a tour through Arizona's cemeteries and you can find elaborate columbaria, water features and cremation gardens.

"There's no reason why these things can't be public and a public space instead of somewhere people visit only once a month," Kemmis said.

The viability of cemeteries may be similar to that of other businesses: They have to provide a distinct flavor, like exclusivity or an atmosphere, that makes them welcome places for the living.

The Mesa Cemetery, across from Hohokam Stadium, is among those public spaces. Those otherworldly cypress trees, now 60 to 70 years old, shoot toward the sky, towering above neat rows of olive and orange trees.

"To me, this is like a park," said cemetery manager Rick Fifield, gesturing to a row of oleander bushes, the only thing separating the cemetery from the backyard of a home. "People come here to run, bike, eat their lunch."

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