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the sixth-largest city in the nation, has only one public cemetery, Pioneer and Military Memorial Park, which is no longer active.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."
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."
As Fifield navigates a golf cart through the narrow drives, he points out the most famous people interred at the cemetery: Ernesto Miranda, of Miranda Rights fame, and country-music singer Waylon Jennings. The cemetery may not have the Edgar Allan Poes or the Benjamin Franklins of the East Coast, but it has its own history.
Tempe's only cemetery, public or private, is city-owned Tempe Double Butte Cemetery, which was gifted in 1958 after the group that had been overseeing it struggled to finance its maintenance. When the city opened two sections in 2008, so many people responded that the city had to create a waiting list. At the time, city officials predicted the spaces would be filled in three years.
"It's the who's who of Tempe," said Cynthia Yanez , director of Double Butte Cemetery. "They've got grandparents, great-grandparents and other family members buried out there. ... If they grew up here, then they definitely want to enter their final resting place here, as well."
The recession has since tempered some of that demand. Yanez said the city is selling "singles" now, for people who cannot afford to buy multiple plots, and also creating payment plans.
Glendale took over its cemetery's operations in 1962 and treats it as a public service, selling burial rights -- at a 20 percent discount with ID -- to Glendale residents, with some exceptions.
Twenty to 30 years ago, owners of cemeteries might have worried more about running out of land than they do today, but that was before cremation rates rose dramatically, said Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. Now, the issue is not as pressing, although cemeteries continually try to plan further into the future than another business might, he said.
"What business worries about how are we going to be 50 years from now? Well, cemeteries do," Fells said. "When you're a cemetery and you're doing any sort of future forecasting, it's not unusual to look 20, 30, even 50 years ahead."
Still, it's impossible to predict burial trends and how cemeteries will adapt.
"A cemetery is the only business that services what it sells forever," Fells said. "There's not a five-year warranty and 'Oh! We're done. Your five years are up now.' It's an ongoing responsibility that never expires."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com
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