With changes in burial customs and the economy come changes in the grounds design and maintenance at cemeteries. “In the last several years we’ve seen an increase in the cremation rate,” says Kevin Daniels, owner of Daniels Family Funeral Services in Albuquerque, N.M., and current president of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA). With that comes a decrease in interment, and that decrease in ground burials has meant that there may be less focus on turfgrass and traditional landscaping at some cemeteries.

Landscaping in featured areas in the Southwest are often xeriscaped with native plants and drip irrigation to save water.
Photo by Curt Clayton.

On the other hand, Daniels says, cemeteries such as his have had to be more creative in designing places on the grounds where they can put the cremation ashes. The Daniels business, which owns 14 funeral homes, three crematories and four cemeteries around New Mexico, has been creating “placement gardens” for this purpose, which has opened up an opportunity to build new landscaped areas. Daniels has already constructed several of these gardens on his properties, and other cemetery owners around the country are doing the same.

Often, these placement gardens are elaborate designs that get away from the old mausoleum concept and incorporate traditional plant materials with hardscaping, such as fountains, statues and a selection of memorials for families to choose from. Daniels designs these himself, and because of water restrictions in the arid Southwest, these are usually xeriscapes. Some of the gardens have turfgrass and large trees, but most new developments utilize arid-adapted and native plants, including the landscaping around some buildings and around a new 9/11 memorial at one of his cemeteries.

“Where water is not a significant issue, you will still see turfgrass products [being used],” Daniels says. On his xeriscapes he works with a local Albuquerque nursery to select appropriate plants, which often includes native species. Drought-tolerant grasses are also used, including natives, in a “park mix” often used locally. Irrigation in these xeriscaped areas is drip irrigation.

A related issue, particularly in the Southwest, is the use of irrigation water by cemeteries and other turfed areas. “It is a daily monetary issue for us,” Daniels says, because higher operating costs can come from increased water regulations. It is also an issue in many parts of the nation where states and municipalities are regulating and restricting water use.

As president of the ICCFA, Daniels sees continued uncertainty in management matters such as health care for employees and labor issues. It is unknown, for example, what effect the newly passed healthcare regulations will have on cemeteries, and whether they might raise costs. He has seen mixed feedback among funeral directors and cemetery managers across the country on the direction the recession is taking, and in general, they are already spending less overall in order to balance budgets. At Daniels Family Funeral Services, the grounds crews are taking better care of grounds equipment in order to get longer service out of it.

In Livonia, Mich., Tom Habitz echoes that sentiment. He is general manager of Glen Eden Lutheran Memorial Park, and he is concerned about cost controls at his 140-acre cemetery.

“Our guys feel better if they have new equipment, and safety is better,” says Habitz, who is past president of the Michigan Cemetery Association. In addition, being in the Detroit area, job losses in the automobile manufacturing and related areas have been catastrophic to service businesses.

Habitz’ crew of six full-time workers and two supervisors are under a union labor contract, and he wants to continue that relationship. He has almost no irrigation issues, because rainfall is enough for most of the grounds, and when he irrigates his Kentucky bluegrass/fescue blend around offices and mausoleums he uses water out of a pond on the site.

A trend around the country is “placement gardens” to accommodate increased cremations, and this one at Daniels Family Funeral Services in New Mexico is based on a xeriscape design.
Photo courtesy of Daniels Family Funeral Services.

Mike Rzepka, head of the tree and turf department at the St. Hedwig Catholic Cemetery in Dearborn Heights, Mich., is a good example of a groundskeeper using the recession as a prompt to be more careful with costs and management. His nonprofit cemetery doesn’t have all of the extra business costs of a for-profit cemetery, but he still has to pay attention to outputs. He thinks all groundskeepers in Michigan are in the same position.

“The price of fertilizer has gone way up. That has affected me greatly,” Rzepka says. In a typical year, he applies a blend of fertilizer and a preemergent herbicide in November to provide nutrition and curtail weed growth in the spring, then make two more fertilizer applications in June and August.

A similar approach dominates the seeding of grave sites, which are seeded with a Kentucky bluegrass/fescue blend, and that has to be done even though seed prices have risen. So, he has instructed his crew of seven full-time workers to read application rate labels and be more precise so seed isn’t wasted. That philosophy is true whether the grave is seeded by hand or with the cemetery’s Land Pride pull-behind overseeder. As far as equipment, he too is taking good care of the cemetery’s machines.

“If we need something, we get it,” he says, however. Rzepka also says that St. Hedwig doesn’t do its own mowing. That is contracted out to a private lawn maintenance company that can do the job more efficiently, and less expensive. He says once cemetery groundskeepers in his area price out the actual cost of this precision work, they generally go to an independent company.

He says the labor situation alone is prohibitive, because he would have to hire more workers dedicated to mowing and trimming, and then lay them off in the winter, which gets to be a complicated and expensive process. He hasn’t cut back on workers or their hours, but many for-profit cemeteries in Michigan have.

Rzepka says that being in a recession has been beneficial in a way. He points out that the careful grounds management practices that come about as a cemetery becomes more conscious of costs can have a positive influence. More precise management, including the use of strict IPM principles focusing on the health of the plants with minimum inputs, are good for the landscape and the environment, and they can cut costs. His cemetery supports him as he attends seminars on turfgrass and landscaping put on by groups such as the Michigan Green Industry Association and Michigan State University, and that makes him a better manager.

As for the direction of cemeteries in general, Rzepka says the trend toward more cremations at St. Hedwig verifies what other cemeteries around the country are finding. His cemetery built a new mausoleum in 2002 for that purpose, and it is getting a lot of use. When he started working here 29 years ago, there was only one or two cremations per year, and now there are as many cremations as ground burials in a day.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.