TALLMADGE: If nothing changes, the city’s only cemetery will run out of room in less than five years.
But change is coming.
Mayor David Kline has assembled a four-person committee to figure out how to get the most out of the 201-year-old landlocked Tallmadge Cemetery. The 12-acre property is located just south of Tallmadge Circle.
The most likely solution is to use a handful of unsold lots along the edge of the main entrance for a series of above-ground vaults that can store cremated remains.
One circular-style columbarium the city is eyeing has 72 niches that could hold 144 urns — and the narrow stretch of land the city has available might be able to hold up to 10 of those features.
Of course, that would mean future residents of the cemetery would need to choose cremation, said Judy Looman of the city’s planning department and a member of the committee.
Already, cremation is an increasingly popular choice. Looman said that last year 35 percent of those buried at the cemetery chose cremation.
Another option would be for the city to look for property elsewhere and begin a second cemetery, but there are drawbacks to that idea.
For starters, the cemetery is grandfathered under an old law that allows plots only 50 feet from existing structures. That’s fortunate, Kline said, because the area being considered for the columbaria is so close to some homes that residents have used the land for parking during parties.
Current law would require a new cemetery to keep its plots 100 yards — the length of a football field — from any structure, so the city would have to invest in a large buffer of unusable space.
Demand for the cemetery is not in question.
In 2009, the city purchased the last bit of available land next to the cemetery. The vacant field added more than 700 new plots, bringing the total number to 3,730. But the city’s announcement that prices were increasing led to a rush, and 561 of those plots were sold in two years.
Now only 270 unsold plots remain in a cemetery that averages 60 sales a year.
Kline has asked the committee — made up of the mayor, Looman, Service Director Bryan Esler and Councilman Jim Donovan of Donovan Funeral Home — to recommend solutions by May 31.
It would be possible to get at least a couple of the vaults up by the end of the year, he said.
Esler, whose department is responsible for maintaining the property, envisions walking paths, benches and soft landscaping to shield new features from nearby homes.
“It could look really nice, very park-like,” he said.
The columbaria would pay for themselves as they are sold. But Tallmadge Cemetery does not pay for itself; it cost the city $90,000 last year to maintain the property.
Government-owned facilities are not required to have perpetual-care funds — endowments that pay for the indefinite care of the cemetery — so maintenance comes out of the general budget.
Tallmadge is not unique in its challenges, said Bob Moses, president of the Ohio Cemetery Association.
There are more than 3,000 cemeteries in the state owned by townships, villages and cities. Many were established long ago — the state is over 200 years old — and are filling up or becoming landlocked by development.
Originally, most early settlers were buried on the family farm or in church-operated cemeteries. But publicly funded cemeteries had to be established to bury locals who didn’t fit either option.
“Then as towns grew up and streets were built around the cemeteries, they were boxed in,” Moses said, “and the ground gets used up quickly.”
Moses said cremation is becoming more common, though not in all areas of the country. Much of the south still sees fewer than 10 percent of deaths result in cremation, he said. But in Ohio, cremations — which he said didn’t account for 5 percent of burials a couple of decades ago — now average about 30 percent a year.
Finances are driving the trend, he said, with cremations saving families $1,000 or more.
Other reasons include interest in being “green” and saving the land, mobile families who can carry urns if they resettle elsewhere in the country and retirees who move to a warmer climate. In the latter, families often want to bring their loved ones home to bury but it’s much cheaper to transfer an urn than ship a body, Moses said.
According to historical accounts, efforts to officially create the Tallmadge Cemetery began with 23 men making pledges in 1816. But by then, several burials on the proposed site already had taken place.
The first known resident of the cemetery was 11-month-old Lydia Wright, the daughter of the local doctor, Amos Wright. A historical account says Lydia died Nov. 22, 1812 and was carried in a homemade coffin through the forest to Southwest Avenue, then along a lane that led to the cemetery.
The second burial occurred a few months later when Dr. Wright was called to care for Zephaniah Pritchard, a veteran of the War of 1812 who had just been discharged but had taken ill. He was carried to Wright’s log cabin at the corner of South Avenue and Van Evera Road and died there March 2, 1813, before being interred near Lydia.