The city of Homer last week issued an invitation to bid for an expansion of Hickerson Memorial Cemetery that will solve a shortfall in services many people don’t think about: Where to bury the dead. Last month, the city sold its last burial plot at the city-owned cemetery on Diamond Ridge Road.
“We do recognize we have run out of grave sites and there is a demand for them, and we don’t want to miss a construction season so there are some sites available as quickly as possible,” said Public Works Director Carey Meyer.
Hickerson Memorial Cemetery has unused plots, but they’re all owned and set aside by families for future use. The city deeds plots in perpetuity to buyers, and anyone needing a burial plot would have to contact burial plot owners to see if they could buy an unused plot. That’s what one family did for a burial in March, said City Clerk Jo Johnson. The city keeps records on burials and who owns plots.
In the 2016 budget year, the Homer City Council appropriated $200,000 for a phased expansion of Hickerson. It also raised the cost of new plots from $200 to $1,000. On April 10, the city put out invitations to bid for Phase 1 of the expansion. Bid proposals are due by 2 p.m. May 4. A pre-bid conference is 1:30 p.m. Monday at the cemetery.
Meyer said the goal of the expansion is to keep the project “as simple as possible, and not do anything more than we need to keep some graves happening up there,” he said.
The expansion project includes:
• Clearing and grubbing 1.8 acres on city land to the west of the existing cemetery,
• Excavating and putting in gravel for new access roads and a parking area, and
• Removing about 850 feet of old chain link fence and installing new and salvaged 4-foot high chain link fencing.
The expansion would add 106 2-feet-by-5-feet burial plots and 60 2-feet-by-2-feet urn plots on city property to the west of the current cemetery. Remains can be buried two deep in one plot. Sales of plots would raise about $166,000 of the construction cost.
The expansion also will extend an access road from the current cemetery and add a small gravel parking lot. The city owns property to the corner of Diamond Ridge Road and Stacey Street, but has no immediate plans to connect the cemetery to the side street.
New to Hickerson will be the smaller 2-foot-square urn burial plots. That’s in fitting with a national and local trend toward more cremations.
At Peninsula Memorial Chapel, the Kenai Peninsula’s local funeral service that includes Homer Funeral Home, about 75 percent of remains are cremated. Suggestions for more urn burials came out of public hearings held on the Hickerson expansion at Homer Advisory Planning Commission meetings.
“We think that will conserve the number of traditional burial sites we need,” Meyer said of the smaller urn burial plots. “In listening to everybody talk, the urn sites were a good idea. They shrink the size of the project.”
In her report at the Feb. 17 council meeting, City Manager Katie Koester noted that the council could offer a reduced price for urn burial plots. The council could do so by a resolution setting a new fee schedule. Fee schedules usually are amended as part of the annual budget cycle.
Koester suggested another change: limiting the number of years someone can hold a burial plot to something like 40 years. Families who bought plots years ago might have made other burial plans and might not need a plot. Koester said she and the clerk’s office are working on a resolution and ordinance revising some of the cemetery fees and rules to present to the council in the near future.
Future phases of the Hickerson Cemetery expansion will include a walking path, a memorial wall and a columbarium — a vertical structure in which cremated remains are set inside small chambers.
Discussions with Diamond Ridge neighbors also led to changes in the cemetery expansion, Meyer said.
“This different way of approaching the project is a result of the city stepping back and engaging the property owners around that site,” he said. “We did listen. We didn’t incorporate everything they want. I think they were happy we’re not going to disturb the south side there.”
Meyer said the expansion will save as many trees and shrubs as possible. Contractors also will take steps to mitigate a problem with orange hawkweed, an invasive flowering plant that spread to the old cemetery and some of the ditches.
Also to improve the aesthetics of the cemetery, contractors will remove old chain link fence along Diamond Ridge Road, salvage some of that fencing, and put the old fencing on the west or lower side — the side that will come down with a future expansion. New fencing will be installed on the Diamond Ridge side and the gate will be improved.
Neighbors also raised concerns about groundwater contamination — an issue not from decomposing bodies but from embalmed bodies or heavy metals from caskets. Some embalmed bodies are buried in plastic or concrete vaults. Another trend is toward “green” burials, where bodies are buried in wood or fiber caskets.
State law requires septic systems to be more than 100 feet from wells, but there are no Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation separation distance requirements between cemeteries and drinking water wells. The city said it did not find any wells within 100 feet of its property.
Meyer said remains are buried beneath impermeable soils like clay or silt, and that groundwater in the area flows through organic materials 2- to 3-feet deep above the impermeable soils. There is less potential of groundwater moving through a casket.
Future expansions will respond to changing needs in burial practices. That’s one reason for starting slowly with a smaller , Phase 1 expansion, Meyer said.
“We can’t see that far into the future to see what the demand will be,” he said. “We’ll provide for the next couple of years and based on new trends that develop.”
Construction bids will be opened after the closing date of May 4 and then awarded at a following council meeting.
“As soon as the soils have thawed up there, we want to have our contractor under contract and ready to go so we can have our project completed in June,” Meyer said.