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Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 12:01 am

The dead zone

Oak Ridge Cemetery’s mid-life crisis

Some headstones in older sections of Oak Ridge Cemetery are starting to tilt as the graveyard struggles to make ends meet.


During winter, especially, the signs aren’t obvious.

Snow covers expanses of lawn prone to brown during dry summers. Dead trees, perhaps as many as 90, aren’t distinguishable from the ones that will leaf out come spring.

Look closely, however, and you can see the outer fringes of decay in a graveyard now nearly 160 years old, a place Abraham Lincoln was said to have visited when the cemetery was officially dedicated in 1860 and where he definitely is all these years later, entombed in a shrine that makes Oak Ridge Cemetery, by virtue of its most famous resident, the second most visited cemetery in the nation.

That, at least, is what the city says – how anyone can know precisely how many people visit a cemetery with no turnstile isn’t clear. But Oak Ridge is an obvious magnet, with hundreds of tour buses stopping by Lincoln’s tomb each summer and the state, which is in charge of the landmark, counting more than 318,000 visitors to the site in 2012.

With the tourist season over, there is no one here on a recent afternoon in January save the dead and a cemetery worker in the distance driving a backhoe. There is a lot of empty. Cemetery authorities more than a half-century ago reported that there was sufficient space for bodies to last the city another 200 years. There is still, the cemetery director says today, room enough to last 200 years.

In at least one sense, then, time does stand still at Oak Ridge. Gravity, however, is immortal, and so a headstone here, a headstone there, is starting to lean in older sections of the graveyard.

It is not yet a crisis. Oak Ridge remains a beautiful place. But beautiful places cost money, and the cost of not spending that money can become embarrassingly clear, as evidenced in Peoria last spring, when a monument to U.S. Marines at Springdale Cemetery collapsed during a Memorial Day ceremony.

Established at roughly the same time as Oak Ridge, Peoria’s Springdale came under public ownership after the state in 1999 revoked the license of the private operator as the graveyard fell into disrepair, with the owner ultimately prosecuted on theft charges for selling a Civil War cannon that belonged to the graveyard. The cemetery today is owned by the city of Peoria and managed by a board that includes appointees from the city, Peoria County, the Peoria Park District and a nonprofit fundraising foundation.

No one is filching cannons in Oak Ridge, but the cemetery in Springfield appears at a crossroads as city fathers confront dwindling revenue, questionable fiscal practices and a graveyard more than twice the size of Washington Park that is starting to show its age.

Money woes
Michael Lelys doesn’t look worried for a man who has $20,000 in the bank and $37,000 in payroll coming due within a week. The city, he knows, will make good if burial proceeds prove insufficient. And sales have been proving insufficient with growing frequency.

Oak Ridge, Lelys says, is on target this year for the fewest number of internments in the cemetery’s history. The low mark is 270; with two months left in the fiscal year, the number of internments was south of 240. Lelys figures the cemetery needs 22 interments a month to just to make payroll; paid-in-advance burials don’t count and after payroll he still has equipment to maintain, fuel to buy and utilities to cover.

As director of Oak Ridge Cemetery since the fall of 2011, Lelys is accustomed to margins thin as the nylon string that weed-whacking workers go through by the case each year in a never-ending battle to trim ground surrounding headstones. If revenue from sales doesn’t materialize, tax dollars will, thanks to a $400,000 allocation for the cemetery approved nearly a year ago by the city council. With six pay periods left in the fiscal year, he’s down to $125,000 and facing the prospect of needing a supplemental appropriation.

Looking a bit like a squashed model of the downtown Hilton hotel, a columbarium set up in 2011 to hold cremated remains mostly empty.

If there is one thing that denizens and prospective customers of Oak Ridge can rely on, Lelys says, it’s city taxpayers.

“There’s solace,” Lelys says. “City residents should know that the cemetery is backed by city fathers. You know that city fathers are not going to let Oak Ridge Cemetery fail.”

A privatization proposal, sprung on the council by surprise during an executive session late last year, had a short life, with Mayor Mike Houston abandoning it for lack of aldermanic support less than three weeks after he first floated the idea. He had been quietly working on the proposal for months, meeting with officials from StoneMor Partners, a company that owns and manages cemeteries throughout the nation and visiting two of the company’s graveyards outside Springfield. The mayor also hired a consultant who concluded that putting cemetery management out for bid was the best option.

The privatization plan came after Houston’s administration in the spring of 2012 told the cemetery board that the graveyard had been hemorrhaging money and that fiscal policy and governance needed to change.

Part of the problem is an endowment fund that can’t begin to cover operating costs that have outstripped revenue.

The cemetery has had an endowment fund since 1866, when the city council appropriated $2,000 to generate income for operating expenses. By 1877, the fund had swelled to $5,000, and the cemetery board in 1904 decreed that 15 percent of all plot sales would be set aside in the endowment fund. If everything went right, the fund’s earnings would pay whatever expenses weren’t covered by sales revenue, and most everything worked out for more than a century.

“Finances at Oak Ridge are extremely stable,” the State Journal-Register reported in 1974 when a mausoleum and chapel opened. “In fact, it’s one governmental body that has no money worries whatsoever.”

The endowment fund at that point stood at $1.75 million – more than $8.2 million in today’s dollars. At the end of 2013, the fund was worth nearly $3.6 million, which represented a gain of more than $313,000 in a year’s time and a substantial improvement over just a few years ago.

For years, the cemetery had been dipping into its endowment fund to pay operating expenses and fund capital improvements, drawing more than $1.1 million from the fund, mostly in $50,000 chunks, since 2007, according to cemetery records. During that same time period, the fund’s investments took a shellacking as the stock market fell along with burial rates. The fund’s value surpassed $4.3 million in 2007, but it dipped below $2.4 million in 2009, thanks to withdrawals and six-figure monthly swings in the fund’s value that all too often swung the wrong way.

The cemetery stopped using the endowment fund as a piggybank in 2012, instead drawing from the city’s general fund to cover shortfalls while reinvesting all of the endowment fund’s earnings. The fund has recovered somewhat, but the city figures that approximately $500,000 still must be paid back to the fund from earnings to make up for principal that was taken. In addition to draws from the endowment fund created with surcharges on burials, Lelys says that he has been forced to draw money “once or twice” from the cemetery’s pre-need account established with monies received from customers who paid in advance for burials.

Richard Hart, the longest serving cemetery director who was on the board when the endowment fund was depleted, doesn’t defend past practice.

“I don’t know that we had any alternative,” Hart says. “There was no (general fund) appropriation. A lot of things have gone over the dam. If you look at all of us, we’d all do things differently. … Back then, I don’t remember us being as on top of it as we are now. I’m just being honest.”

Built by the private sector and completed in 1912, Oak Ridge Abbey became public property after changing hands a half-dozen times in the space of 40 years.

Auditors last year found that the board had violated its investment policy by putting more than 60 percent of the endowment fund into equities as opposed to fixed-income investments. It was, Hart and the board’s investment manager argued, a question of semantics in a policy that the board had not known existed until auditors found it. Mutual funds, for instance, consisting of bonds should not be counted as equities, the two men claimed, and the board ultimately declined to adopt the auditor’s report.

It’s not clear how a private manager could turn a profit.

Jobs have been trimmed from 16 full-time employees in fiscal year 2009 to 11 full-time time workers in the fiscal year that ended last spring. The budget for seasonal workers has been cut from $110,000 to $50,000 during that same time period. Seven employees, more than half the staff, earn less than $40,000 a year.

And there is much work to do. As many as 100 trees have died, many due to drought, during the past two years, Lelys says, and most of them are still awaiting removal. Some have fallen on their own, he says. The cemetery’s waterworks that once supplied water throughout the grounds was shut down years ago due to failing pipes.

Lelys and Hart agree: The days of self support are over at Oak Ridge, and they point out that the $400,000 the city has budgeted to sustain operations are a miniscule percentage of the city’s general fund that’s expected to top $115 million next year. Lelys says that he hopes to at least reduce general-fund payments to the cemetery.

“If I can chip $100,000 or $150,000 away from it, that’s $150,000 to the good,” Lelys says.

Privatization doesn’t sit well with those who most love the cemetery.

“The StoneMor proposal is analogous, in my view, to placing the family farm into bank management,” Guy Sternberg, an arborist who volunteers at Oak Ridge told aldermen during a November city council hearing. “The bank might maximize profits without concern for soil conservation or grandma’s sweet corn patch or the apple tree that grandpa planted or the value of the old hedgerows or the history of the old barn, all of which the bank decides to bulldoze to plant a few more rows of corn. The bank then skims the profits and the farm will never again be the same.”

Changing times
Oak Ridge has hardly been the same since the 1850s, when the city acquired 28 acres to establish the cemetery, then banned burials elsewhere in the city while moving in corpses from other graveyards.

In terms of acreage, the cemetery grew at a rate far beyond the capacity of the city to supply bodies. By the middle of the last century, Oak Ridge had grown to its present size of 365 acres. If it were a park it would be, by far, the largest in the city.

Oak Ridge’s sheer mass is rooted in a Victorian view of cemeteries as gathering spots for the living, not just the dead.

Oak Ridge’s design was part of a trend toward spacious cemeteries in a time when multiple bodies were sometimes entombed in common graves due to overcrowded urban cemeteries. Questions of which shrubs and trees to plant and where were carefully considered as cemetery designers strived to create a landscape that looked natural, inspired serenity and invited visitors to at once gaze on nature and marble obelisks, Grecian columns and other memorials to the deceased. The formula certainly worked at Oak Ridge, which became a popular picnicking spot during the 19th century.

Advertising efforts that have included radio spots and free emery boards decorated with contact information for Oak Ridge have failed to significantly increase sales.

Private operations within the cemetery have met with mixed success.

In the years before World War I, an Ohio firm erected Oak Ridge Abbey, a mausoleum at the cemetery entrance on Monument Avenue amid big expectations and predictions that it would match the Lincoln monument in beauty and durability.

The mausoleum was in the hands of a receiver before construction was complete, but that didn’t dampen enthusiasm as opening day approached in 1912, barely three months after the Titanic sank. Burying the dead was old-fashioned and messy, according to a front-page story in the Illinois State Register extolling the virtues of spending eternity inside Oak Ridge Abbey.

“In architectural design it cannot be excelled, and the same may be said of its permanency of construction and workmanship,” the newspaper gushed.

Forty years later, Oak Ridge’s managing director sent a letter to crypt owners or their surviving loved ones, asking for money. The mausoleum had changed hands six times over two generations and was now owned by the cemetery, which needed $20,000 for repairs, director A. R. Kugler wrote.

“The limited finances of Oak Ridge Cemetery will not permit such an expenditure and, if they would, the wisdom of depleting Cemetery Funds for a project that gave no return for investment would be questionable,” Kugler wrote in the 1952 letter asking crypt owners to come up with $100 apiece to fix the building, which would be adorned with a bronze plaque denoting their generosity.

A maintenance fund, the director promised, would be established from sales of vacant crypts in the mausoleum, which is now kept locked, with keys held by cemetery staff and families of the deceased. There is neither a donors plaque nor a separate fund for maintenance, but, aside from a cracked ceiling that occasionally needs plaster and paint, the building is in good condition, with room for more corpses and sales slow.

Through the years, the cemetery did what it could to keep up with changing tastes and times. Fountains and ponds came and went. Figuring that children would want to rest together in eternity, the cemetery established Cradle Land shortly after World War II and augmented that space with Baby Land in 1975. There is also a section reserved for Masons and, once, for people of color. City fathers dreamed big. When the city in 1936 secured state and federal funds to help pay for an overhaul of Monument Avenue that leads to the cemetery’s main entrance, then Mayor John Kapp told the Illinois State Journal that he envisioned a boulevard that would rank with Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., or Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

More recently, the cemetery in 2007 established an area for veterans near the cemetery’s war memorials. Rather than dig graves as people died, the cemetery sank 324 empty concrete crypts in the ground at a cost of $300,000, Lelys says, and waited for bodies that never came. It was a curious business decision, given an increase in cremation rates and free burial for veterans and their immediate families at Camp Butler just a few miles away and one-seventh the size of Oak Ridge, which initially charged $4,200 per plot in the veterans-only area. Sales have picked up since the cemetery slashed the price to $1,500 and opened the area up to non-veterans. Still, fewer than 40 plots have been purchased.

The death rate today is less than half what it was when Oak Ridge was founded, and attitudes have changed. Cremation rates have skyrocketed, from less than 4 percent of all dispositions in the United States in 1960 to more than 43 percent in 2012. By 2020, the Cremation Association of North America projects that more than half of America’s corpses will be cremated. Baby boom notwithstanding, death rates have dropped, from 8.5 per 1,000 U.S. residents in 2000 to slightly more than eight in 2011.

In response to rising cremation rates, Oak Ridge in 2011 spent more than $100,000 to erect two columbariums, which is funeral-speak for a place to put cremated remains. They have proven a tough sell, with empty spaces far outnumbering occupied ones. Lelys questions their location.

There was plenty of room for a columbarium on an expanse of lawn near the cemetery’s main entrance that affords a clear view of the Lincoln Tomb that gives Oak Ridge cachet. Instead, a stone columbarium was squeezed between markers, many from another era, in another part of the grounds without a view of the tomb – it looks a bit like the downtown Hilton hotel towering above nearby markers. The other columbarium, similarly empty, is just outside the cemetery chapel alongside a driveway, perfect for drive-thru mourners but also not within sightline of the Lincoln Tomb that Lelys believes could have been used as a selling point.

Just two spots are occupied outside the Oak Ridge chapel and mausoleum, where the cemetery in 2011 installed niches for cremated remains.

For more than a year, Lelys has talked about increasing sales, perhaps by allowing contractors to sell burial spots on commission, but no contacts have been reached. Radio ads run last spring had no discernible impact. Whether emery boards bearing the cemetery’s name, web address and phone number that Lelys distributes to civic groups will make a difference is anyone’s guess.

Other cemeteries are cheaper. At Roselawn Memorial Park near Riverton, for example, prices for disposition of cremated remains start at $595; at Oak Ridge, the least expensive option is $1,000.

The future

Despite fiscal concerns, there is hope at Oak Ridge.

Last year, the Oak Ridge Cemetery Foundation was granted tax-exempt status and plans on raising money for cemetery improvements. Jennifer Aholt, president of the newly formed foundation, says that the first task is restoring a gateway on Third Street in time for a 2015 reenactment of Lincoln’s funeral. The foundation is also interested in restoring a bell tower and setting up podcasts to help guide visitors to significant monuments and flora. As a model, Aholt is looking toward the Peoria foundation that has raised more than $1 million to preserve Springdale Cemetery, the once-private graveyard that turned public more than a decade ago after falling in disrepair.

“Look at how many people it brings to the city of Springfield,” Aholt says. “It’s worth keeping as an asset, and keeping it up.”

Houston says he has no plans to resurrect his privatization proposal. But expenses, he says, will grow larger with time.

“I have no concern in terms of the corporate fund subsidizing the cemetery – we have an obligation to operate the cemetery,” Houston said. “But I also feel that if we’re going to do this on a long-term basis, the city council needs to make a decision that that is what they’re going to do instead of just letting it happen.”

P.J. Staab, owner of Staab Funeral Homes, says that it’s time for fundamental change at Oak Ridge.

The Staab family owns some of the most prominent ground in the cemetery, bordering an approach road to the Lincoln tomb, and there is plenty of space at the family monument for several more generations. Staab is keenly aware of the crumbling roads and erosion concerns and broken waterworks and older headstones that are starting to tip.

“I do know that they’ve always struggled, because I work with them daily,” Staab says.

Crumbling infrastructure at the cemetery is no one’s fault, Staab says, but it needs to be addressed, and the best way is through a $10 annual charge tacked onto property tax bills and earmarked for Oak Ridge. The park district rather than the city could take care of maintenance, Staab suggests.

“Everybody’s got their loved ones out there. I don’t think it would be a hard sell to the public,” Staab says. “I’m very optimistic. I do believe they need to take some action. It’s on the front burner in people’s eyes.

“It’s not going to fix itself.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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