Cemetery issue laid to rest: Soldotna poised to begin construction of memorial park

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2010

Editor's note: This week, the Clarion will take a look back at some of the people and events in the headlines in 2010.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Marge Mullen is still waiting for the day that Soldotna has its own cemetery. For now, spruce trees fill the land next to Redoubt Elementary School, where the cemetery will eventually be established.

Cemetery issue laid to rest: Soldotna poised to begin construction of memorial parkA cemetery is much more than a burial ground. It is more than a place for loved ones to grieve, or for passersby to pay their respects. A cemetery is, in essence, a method of record-keeping: history etched in stone.

Yet since its inception in 1947, the city of Soldotna has struggled to construct this requisite foundation of communities.

"I feel bad that our history really is lost," said Catherine Parker, a resident of Soldotna since 1961. "We were the last town to be established on the basis of westward expansion. When I think of the homesteaders, they were really important to history ... and these people just had to be buried somewhere else."

Marge Mullen, a long-time friend of Parker who has lived in Soldotna since its beginnings, agreed that a town just isn't complete without a cemetery to lend it historical context.

"I visit cemeteries in other cities that I go to, whether I have a relative buried there or not," Mullen, 90, said. "It just speaks to the history of the place: the names of people on the markers and how long these people might have lived, how many people in their family were buried there."

Now finally, with decades of deliberation and immeasurable effort under its belt, Soldotna will have a place to bury its dead: 17 acres of property between West Redoubt Avenue and West Marydale Drive. And many community members couldn't be happier.

Parker, 86, intends to have her husband Charlie, who died in 2001 and is buried in Kasilof, disinterred and moved to the Soldotna Memorial Park once it is completed. She plans to be buried there by his side. Mullen, too, has already informed her loved ones of her to desire to be put to rest in Soldotna. But these two women are not alone in their wishes.

Grant Wisniewski, a funeral director and embalmer at the Peninsula Memorial Chapel, has already been approached by eight relatives of deceased Soldotna residents regarding the transition of their loved ones from cemeteries in Kasilof and Kenai to the Soldotna Memorial Park.

"There's a lot of people that wish to be buried in the Soldotna cemetery," Wisniewski said. "I think there's going to be a big influx of people."

Wisniewski estimates that it will cost approximately $2,500 to $3,000 for the entire process of moving someone to the Soldotna cemetery: disinterring, transportation, and digging a new grave. Wisniewski also points out that his guess is limited, as he does not know how much the new cemetery will charge for a plot.

For the families who choose not to move their loved ones to Soldotna or who cannot afford to, a memorial wall will be erected where names can be engraved.

"This gives us the opportunity for Soldotna really to be a whole community," Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche said. "Not only to have our people live here, but to have them die here and be remembered here as well."

Even those originally critical of using the Redoubt location as land for the cemetery feel that, all in all, this development will benefit everyone in the city.

"I was in opposition," said Jay Rohloff, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to the West Redoubt site and in 2009, attempted to win a seat on the Soldotna City Council on the platform of nixing the location. "I don't want to rehash anything to make it contentious. I think it needs to go forward, and I think long-term it will be a win-win for everybody in the community."

Despite the satisfaction at having this project finally come within inches of fruition, some residents think construction on the site should have been initiated by now.

"The mayor thought action would be taken by fall of this year," Mullen said. "Well, now we're deep into winter. I hope that spring doesn't go by without some action on road building and picking out plots."

"I just think we better go ahead," Parker added. "We can't afford any more stalls."

Last summer, a committee headed by Nancy Casey of Casey Planning and Design mapped a conceptual layout of Soldotna Community Memorial Park. This allowed the city to move ahead with the next stage of the project: contracting with Wince-Corthell-Bryson Consulting Engineers to concretely plan the specifications and logistics of the cemetery, which is happening right now.

"We're in the design phase right now," City Manager Larry Semmens said. "So once the design is done, we will put it out to bid and I do expect construction to begin next construction season."

And after decades of discussion, disagreement, and disappointment, Soldotna residents can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief, and (hopefully) by the end of next summer, welcome this long-awaited addition to their town.

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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