It’s not always easy for a local cemetery to stay alive.
Gravesites need to be maintained, bills need to be paid, and revenue relies solely on death.
Every active cemetery deals with difficulties, but for a board of less than 10 retirees, maintaining East Lawn Burial Park in Urbana is a grave concern.
“East Lawn, being the way it is, it’s independent of all that and solely on its own to support itself,” said David Short, a member of the cemetery board who has volunteered with it for seven years. “There was a time when people just abused the cemetery and got what they could from it.”
East Lawn is the only registered cemetery within Champaign-Urbana run entirely by volunteers. The East Lawn Burial Park Association maintains 27 acres between Cunningham and Kerr avenues.
Short said the cemetery has started to overcome financial issues that plagued it during the past five years – including having some of its finances frozen by the Illinois comptroller. But unlike the other cemeteries in the area, East Lawn still does not have any assistance from a parent company, Champaign County or the City of Urbana.
“It makes whatever money it makes from the burials or the burial space purchases. Other than that, there is not income,” Short said.
The lack of income is not isolated to East Lawn; many cemeteries statewide have the same issue.
“It’s a terrible thing that’s happening to all of our cemeteries that they don’t have the funds to take care of them,” said Vickie Hand, treasurer of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association.
She said that because East Lawn is run by an association, it is considered privately held by the Illinois Cemetery Oversight Act. This means there is nothing the government would do to fund them, even though she thinks the associations are more prevalent than privately owned, municipal and religious cemeteries.
“The Illinois Comptroller’s office, they’ll tell you they can hold a bake sale and they can ask companies to contribute,” she said. “The people that are buried in that cemetery, their families should be taking care of it.”
Cemeteries that once flourished because the families of the deceased took care of the graves run into issues when the families start to die out or move away, Hand said.
“A lot of people don’t really think about the importance of their loved ones’ graves being taken care of because they’re out of state, and what can they do about that? They might not have the money, and what can they do about that?” she said.
At the end of the day, she said, people are more likely to invest in their own livelihoods.
“How to take care of it, I can’t give that answer. It’s just a sad situation,” Hand said. “It’s nice to see that they have some volunteers that are willing to pitch in.”
Short said it takes about $10,000-$15,000 annually to maintain the cemetery. This includes pulling up weeds, mowing and cosmetic maintenance, which is done by the six members of the cemetery board and three volunteers; another task is opening and closing burial plots, which is done by one part-time employee of the cemetery.
All of the members of the board are “older folks,” Short said.
“Some of them are not physically capable of doing things. They’re on the board, they’re there to see the general activity, but beyond that that’s the best they’ve got, and I understand that,” he said.
Short works for about 20 hours a week on maintaining the cemetery and gets help from his son, who is also on the board.
“He’ll be around for a while after I’m not here, but who’s going to be there after that?” he asked.
Each member of the cemetery board is appointed by the Champaign County board chair and serves for a six-year term.
“They don’t want anything to do with you after they appoint you,” Short said. “I think it would be nice if we could rely on the county board for things. More specifically just advice or legal assistance. But that’s not available to us.”
Short said he asked the county board five years ago why there was not more involvement and never got an answer.
“What it comes down to is that the County Board appoints people to many boards,” said C. Pius Weibel, Champaign County board chairman. “Almost all of them, that’s all we do. The reason is, the only way we influence actively is by appointing a different person.”
Weibel said because the county board’s legal counsel is the Champaign County State’s Attorney, currently Julia Reitz, he cannot order legal assistance for any of the boards.
“I can’t order (Reitz) to give advice to Dave Short. I don’t have that power. It would be nice if I did,” he said.
Short said there are benefits to being independent, but the lack of assistance from the county and the city can be difficult.
“I just try to make sure I have money to pay the bills I’m accumulating,” he said.
Though the cemetery cannot legally be taxed, the City of Urbana imposed a monthly storm water utility fee of about $75 on the cemetery in 2013.
“The cemetery’s supposed to be tax exempt, but when I argued about it, they said ‘That’s why we made it a storm sewer fee, so nobody would be exempt,’” Short said.
Justin Swinford, a civil engineer with Urbana’s storm water management program, said almost every property in Urbana pays the fee.
“It is more of a fee than a tax just because regardless of the condition of the site, everyone does use the city infrastructure to some extent,” Swinford said.
Though the cemetery pays the fee every year, Short has argued against it because the cemetery does not use the storm sewers; it acts as drainage into Boneyard Ditch.
“I don’t like it, but I guess there’s not a whole lot I can do about it,” Short said. “I asked him, ‘At some point if I can’t pay that bill, what are you gonna do?’ and there is a possibility that could exist if we don’t have any income, and of course our income consists of buying burial spaces or people dying.”
Swinford said he was not sure what the policy would be if the bill was not paid, but added that he was not aware of anyone being unable to pay the fee.
“I understand (the cemetery) might not be making a lot of money, they’re not a for-profit property; however, each property in its own way contributes to storm water runoff and in a way to the degradation of our storm sewer system,” he said.
Short said the best way to make things easier to manage would be to get tax support from the city, which is not uncommon for other boards overseen by the county. There is one issue, however.
“Many of the boards that have requested the ability to levy a tax have hired lawyers because they can afford them,” Weibel said.
The East Lawn board looked into the cost of levying a tax and found that it would not work with the budget.
“I don’t think we’re getting worse. I think each day’s a better day,” Short said. “We are what we are.”
This story has been updated to clarify that it includes only registered cemeteries within Champaign-Urbana.
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