Alaska is well-known for its high cost of living. Kenai now plans to re-evaluate one of the costs of dying.
A proposal from the Kenai Parks and Recreation Department would increase the price for a standard plot in the Kenai cemetery from $250 to $1,000 and establish a price for urns installed in the cemetery’s newly built columbarium — a structure designed to house cremated ashes.
Kenai Parks and Recreation Director Bob Frates presented a plan to update cemetery fees at the Kenai Parks and Recreation commission’s Nov. 3 meeting. In addition to raising the standard price, the plan would raise an urn-sized plot from $100 to $300 and propose a $1,000 fee for those wishing to have their ashes sealed in the columbarium.
Frates, who has worked for Kenai for 25 years, said he doesn’t recall the last time time cemetery fees were changed. He said his proposals for the new fees were created “by market comparisons — looking at fee schedules for other municipalities.”
His proposal would make Kenai’s cemetery fees similar to Soldotna’s, which according to its fee schedule charges between $750-$1,000 for a cemetery plot, $400 for an urn-sized plot, and $1,200 for a niche in its columbarium. In 2016, Homer also increased its cemetery fees from $200 to $1,000, according to its website. Anchorage made smaller increases to its cemetery fees in September 2016.
Frates said maintenance costs are rising as the cemetery fills up.
“I’d estimate that within the last five to eight years we’ve more than doubled the maintenance hours we put into the cemetery,” Frates said. “It’s going to be reaching capacity before too long, so there are a lot more obstacles, a lot more burials and plots to manage and care for and mow around.”
Frates said the Parks and Recreation commission will discuss and vote on the fee changes, possibly at their Feb. 2 meeting, and the proposal will be offered for the Kenai City Council’s approval sometime afterward.
When Soldotna opened its 17-acre Community Memorial Park in 2011, it included a 64-niche columbarium. Since then, 12 of Soldotna’s columbarium niches have been filled with ash-containing urns, according to Soldotna City Clerk Shelly Saner.
Kenai’s new columbarium, finished in August 2016, will start receiving ashes after the fee for it is set. Kenai Parks and Recreation commissioner and Peninsula Memorial Chapel funeral director Grant Wisniewski said the proposed $1,000 columbarium fee didn’t include the cost of engraving the niche’s stone face, which would likely make the price similar to Soldotna’s $1,200.
The idea of Kenai’s columbarium dates back at least to 2009, when the city had a cemetery advisory committee dedicated to planning cemetery expansion, active between January and October of that year. In a Dec. 15, 2008 memo to this committee, Frates wrote that a columbarium would be “needed to keep pace with (a) trend moving toward cremation.” According to the industry group Cremation Association of North America, the percentage of American corpses that were cremated doubled between 2000 and 2015.
On May 10, 2016, the Kenai City Council opened bidding on a construction contract for the columbarium. At their May 18 meeting, council members unanimously awarded $47,000 to the only bidder, Alaska Bronze and Granite. The columbarium was finished in August 2016, Frates said.
The national trend toward cremation may already be affecting Kenai. The cemetery’s designated urn plots are all filled, so prospective crematees are forced to buy full-sized plots, which can each hold three cremation urns. Sharing a plot sometimes creates problems, according to Parks and Recreation commissioner Wisniewski.
“The bad thing is you can only have one headstone, and it has to have all the names on it,” Wisniewski said. “You can’t have three separate headstones within the full-size grave, so you almost have to have all the people you think are going to be in there have a headstone with all their names already on it, and just do final dates. People don’t do this too often. A lot of people don’t like their name on a headstone when they’re still living.”
As for regular-size plots, Frates said the cemetery has about 65 left, all clustered on the north end of the 9.56-acre cemetery grounds. A 4.10-acre lot opposite the cemetery across Floatplane Road has long been designated for cemetery expansion, but putting it into service requires city capital spending, Frates said.
“When that will unfold will be a council matter, and certainly a big budgetary issue,” Frates said of the expansion. “If I were to throw a number out — and it’s a big span, but it’d be about $300,000 to $500,000.”
The expansion properties have been clear-cut, Frates said, but will need to surveyed, mapped and fenced.
“A good portion of that cost is just the fence around the property,” Frates said. “I’m guessing the fence-work alone would be $170,000 to $230,000.”
With 100 niches that can each contain multiple urns, the columbarium could buy the cemetery more time to plan and fund the expansion.
“One thing the columbarium does for us is provide another option for people,” Frates said. “…I don’t know to what degree it will extend the lifespan of the cemetery, but it probably will some, and it certainly gives people an option from the more traditional burial anyways.”
Another tentative part of Frates’ proposal included a city aid program for those unable to afford the new burial fees, which would price out users of some existing burial aid programs. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Assistance offers burial aid through its General Relief Assistance fund, payments of which are capped at $500. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe also gives members burial assistance, funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. That aid is also capped, according to Kenaitze communication specialist M. Scott Moon.
“In some situations the new fee could put a family’s burials expenses over the cap,” Moon said. “I’m not sure it would affect every family.”
Frates said he doesn’t have definite plans for a municipal aid program, but said it is “worthy of discussion.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.