10 April 2011

Sunbelt communities running out of cemetery space -- no real desire to build more

Tampa running out of cemetery space
By KEVIN WIATROWSKI | The Tampa Tribune

For a century now, Italians have been burying their loved ones in a small cemetery on the city's east side.

Headstones in the L'Unione Italia Cemetery bear many names that are still familiar: Ferlita, Greco, Montelione, Nuccio.

Behind a tall black fence, the site is chock-a-block with granite stones and family crypts. An enormous mausoleum holds more than 500 recent burials, stacked six high.

The cemetery has anchored Tampa's Italian community for generations, but it's unclear how much longer that can happen. The Italian cemetery, like many across Tampa, has run out of space. A handful of gravesites and mausoleum slots remain at L'Unione Italia, but they'll soon be gone, said Sam Manna, who oversees the cemetery for the Italian Club.

Tampa isn't alone in running out of cemetery space. Across the country, cities as big as New York and as small as Orem, Utah, are looking for places to bury their dead.

The city-owned graveyards in Tampa – Oaklawn, Woodlawn, Jackson Heights and Marti/Colon – have about 1,100 unused grave sites, all of them spoken for. The city hasn't sold a new gravesite since the 1980s, said Marsha Carter, who manages the cemeteries for the city's parks department.

Another prominent cemetery, East Tampa's privately owned Memorial Park – ran out of new plots in 2006. Since then, it has stopped paying for itself, said owner John Robinson.

As Tampa's cemeteries fill up, families must travel beyond the city limits to bury their loved ones. Even former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had deep ties to Tampa, couldn't find a final resting space in the city. He's buried in a mausoleum in Pasco County, miles from the baseball stadium that bears his name.

In the Tampa Bay region, decades of suburban growth have left many areas with no cemeteries at all. That's partly because cemeteries aren't part of community planning in Florida. They're treated either as for-profit businesses – often extensions of funeral homes – or as offshoots of nonprofit groups, such as churches.

As a result, from Carrollwood to Keystone, northwest Hillsborough County has no burial spaces. They're also nonexistent in growing bedroom communities such as Wesley Chapel and Brandon.

Even many retiree-oriented communities are without cemeteries, though that's not surprising to Ruth Steiner, a professor of planning at the University of Florida.

"How do you tell someone they're moving to an active-adult community when you include something like a cemetery in the development?" she said.

Cemeteries used to be as integral to a community's life as its churches and schools. But times are changing, and the Tampa Bay region's cemeteries seem at risk of becoming things of the past.

Several factors are at work, experts say:

•The Tampa Bay region is heavy with retirees and transplanted workers for whom "home" is another town in another state. Every year, about 9,000 people die in Hillsborough County, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. But only a fraction of those people are buried here.

•The cost of a modern burial can run into the five figures, making cremation a cheaper and more appealing option. More than 50 percent of the people who die in Florida each year are cremated, said Jim Ford, president of the Neptune Society, a company that specializes in cremations.

•In bedroom communities, where the population favors young, out-of-state transplants, subdivision builders looking to wring profit from every acre are loathe to set aside land for anything but houses, said Avera Wynne, planning director for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

Also, many people don't want to live near a cemetery.

"It's really about Not In My Back Yard," said Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Building Association. "Nobody wants to look at a cemetery."

Not to worry, say cemetery owners and funeral directors. The Tampa Bay region has burial spaces to spare, even if they're in far-flung places such as southwest Pasco and eastern Hillsborough counties.

Given the trends reshaping the way we deal with death, the region's existing cemeteries have space for years to come, said Keenan Knopke, president of the Florida Cemetery, Crematory and Funeral Home Association, based in Pinellas County.

With modern families spread across the country, it makes sense that people opt out of traditional burials, said Lori Collins, an archeologist who studies cemeteries at the University of South Florida.

Collins points to her own family, which has roots in Upstate New York but is dispersed across 15 states. Her father is buried in the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, her mother in Land O' Lakes.

"This idea of having a centralized place where people come may not be such an aspect of our society anymore," Collins said.

That would be a shame, said Laurie Burgess, a cemetery expert with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Cemeteries serve as their community's time capsules, literally casting history in stone. In Tampa, cemeteries hold the remains of the city's founders, prominent members of its Italian, black, Cuban and Jewish communities, slaves and victims of yellow fever and Spanish flu epidemics.

As the Tampa Bay area loses touch with it cemeteries, it also risks losing touch with its history, Burgess said.

"Cemeteries are very good at carrying messages into the future from the past," she said.

Protecting that history isn't always simple, though.

Memorial Park Cemetery owner Robinson said the East Tampa burial ground, where some of Tampa's most prominent black residents are buried, has become a financial burden after three generations in his family.

Robinson couldn't convince the city to take over the site. He also hasn't stirred much interest among East Tampa residents to step in. So, when Robinson, 58, dies, the cemetery will become abandoned property.

A few blocks to the south on 26th Street, Manna hopes to avoid a similar fate for the L'Unione Italia Cemetery. Community members have spent a decade reviving the once-neglected cemetery.

The Italian Club wants to build a costly new mausoleum to extend the cemetery's life for future generations, himself included, Manna said. The group will likely borrow the money to do the work, because few people buy gravesites in advance any more, he said

The alternative is walking away from the cemetery, and that's not an option, Manna said.

"Having a place to come to visit your deceased loved ones helps keep a sense of family," Manna said. "I think that's begun to fracture."