Final resting place may get makeover

Committees agree to cemetery grading, consider vaults that would increase capacity, revenue
By 
COREY SCHMIDT
Ozaukee Press staff

Preliminary discussions are underway to find new ways of housing Saukville’s dead. The village’s Public Works Committee and Cemetery Commission met on Aug. 16 to discuss grading land and providing new remains storage options at Union Cemetery.

During fall 2021 and spring 2022 Public Works Superintendent Dan Helm updated the cemetery’s geographic information system map. While doing this, it came to his attention that most of the cemetery’s open plots were in the cemetery’s northern portion where a terraced elevation makes it difficult not only to properly maintain the property, but also find buyers to take available plots due to its stair-like terrain.

“The north side got a little confusing because that’s back from the 1870s,” Helm said. “It’s hard to read where everyone is while the south side was more accurate.”

Helm, the two committees and Administrator Dawn Wagner worked on not only finding a solution to the outdated mapping, but also how to better use the cemetery’s northern land.

“All the hills are eroding and we can’t get lawnmowers up there,” Helm said. “We have guys up there with weed whackers taking care of that whole upper half.”

Not only does this pose a problem for maintenance but also in putting bodies into the ground. If it is difficult to get a lawnmower up there, it also creates increased liability concerns when bringing heavy equipment up to dig graves for caskets, Trustee Trevor Seitz said.

“I’ll put it this way, if I owned an insurance company and I knew that they were trying to drive a bulldozer or a skid loader up there, I’d probably drop them from my insurance,” Seitz said.

The two committees agreed to grade the far northern portion, where there are no graves, in an attempt to reduce the terraces’ drop to make it easier to mow the lawn — something Helm, who used to take a weed wacker up there himself, is looking forward to. The Finance Committee will take an official vote on the matter during its Aug. 29 special meeting.

However, flattening the land isn’t going to solve the entire problem. There is still the overarching liability concern. Trustee Seitz did research on bringing columbariums and ossuariums to Union Cemetery.

Columbariums are vaults with niches inside them to store urns in while ossuariums are large structures with urn niches on the outside and a center where bags holding one’s ashes are kept.

This would allow the village to have a higher density of cemetery residents, which could help generate revenue to alleviate the cemetery’s burden on taxpayers. Currently, the cemetery does not generate enough revenue to cover maintenance costs.

“What you see in many communities is that cemeteries don’t generate enough revenue to cover maintenance,” Wagner said. “There’s (a little revenue) from the cemetery when lots sell, but it’s not enough on an annual basis to cover the actual costs.”

Eickhof, a cemetery memorial manufacturer, estimates that an ossuarium could bring in revenue of roughly $563,750. This comes with a companion niche, the outside section, to sell for $3,500 and the middle ossuary space, where ash bags are kept, selling at $950 each. This would not only generate revenue for the village to maintain the cemetery, but also provide a more affordable option for low-income families, considering a casket alone costs roughly $5,000 — not including a larger headstone, plot and other expenses. The increased revenue would be earmarked for cemetery maintenance, according to Wagner.

“The right thing to do is the only thing to do,” Wagner said regarding its revenue.

Seitz, who served in the Army, wants to provide a discounted option for veterans, too. The American Legion helps unclaimed veterans get a proper burial, Seitz said, and that sometimes homeless veterans are unclaimed because loved ones cannot afford funeral and burial expenses since they are living paycheck to paycheck. Because of this, Seitz would like to see the village do something similar for claimed veterans so people can claim their loved ones with limited financial implications.

“I want to do something for veterans as a whole because not all veterans get (the chance to be) buried in the veterans cemeteries,” Seitz said. “For example, Grandpa passed away and you got Billy and Jane who want to bury grandpa. If they actually put them in a burial site, it’s going to cost them $13,000 to $18,000.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs also provides financial assistance for families, so if Saukville would reduce its cemetery costs for veterans interested in the ossuarium like Seitz suggests, the VA could help cover a large portion of it. The VA also provides assistance with memorial plaques, which Seitz said could possibly go on the ossuarium’s exterior.

Wagner said conversations for the ossuarium and columbarium will continue between the Public Works Committee and the Cemetery Commission after the Finance Committee’s Aug. 29 vote on whether or not it wants to grade the cemetery’s northern portion.

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