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Western New York towns being forced into cemetery business

When public cemeteries fail, they often end up the responsibility of local taxpayers ... forever.

EDEN, N.Y. — On East Church Street in the Town of Eden is the Evergreen Cemetery. It was established in the 1800s and is the final resting place for over a thousand souls.

2 On Your Side is also told the cemetery is running out of money.

“That’s a ticking time-bomb for us,” Eden Town Supervisor Melissa Hartman said.

Hartman fears that sooner or later her town will be forced to take over Evergreen, which would be town government’s eighth cemetery.

Yes, Eden is in the cemetery business.

“We take care of all the burials, any caretaker that we have to hire to oversee those burials. We have the burial cost, the grave digging piece, and then the administration of that,” Hartman said.

Add to that the cost of cemetery maintenance: tree trimming or removal, landscaping, grass cutting, repairing markers, and snow plowing.

How? The short answer is, it's state law.

Here’s a slightly longer explanation: There are an estimated 6,000 cemeteries in New York State. Most are not regulated by the state Division of Cemeteries. The unregulated burial grounds include family, private, national, military and religious cemeteries.

The rest number 1,755 and are organized as public, non-profit cemeteries. These are overseen by the state, and by statute, when one of these fails, it becomes the responsibility of local town government. Villages and cities are not required to take cemeteries. 

These public, non-profit cemeteries fail in two ways. Each is required to have a board to run the cemetery. If the number of board members falls below three, the cemetery is handed over to the town. Also, if a public, non-profit cemetery becomes insolvent, they are transferred to town government.

The Division of Cemeteries says 170 cemeteries have failed since 1990. David Fleming with the New York State Association of Cemeteries says the actual number is closer to 300, and he adds, “I think there’s another fifty in the pipeline potentially.”

And just in the eight counties of Western New York, the state has identified 43 cemeteries that have failed or been abandoned and become the responsibility of local towns.

There is a state fund set up to help towns that have been suddenly thrust into the cemetery business. This year, $2 million was allocated for the abandonment fund, but it’s already almost gone.

“It’s May. State fiscal year started April 1st. It only has a couple hundred thousand dollars left in the account for the rest of the entire fiscal year,” Fleming said.

Fleming explains many towns shut out of funding in previous years likely already had approved applications in when the state budget was approved. And there were some cemetery disasters around the state that were prioritized.

One example is the town of Oswegatchie, near Ogdensburg. When it was saddled with the Foxwoods Memorial Park several years ago, it also inherited a nearly full mausoleum with a badly leaking roof.

Back in Eden, Supervisor Hartman is not sure where she’ll fund money to pay for the perpetual upkeep of another cemetery.

“We run a tight ship. There’ll be some years where I'm pulling fifty dollars out of a budget line just to cut things back. What people I think don’t understand about town budget is there’s not a lot of fluff.”


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