Cemetery faces financial crunch

FAIRMONT – The season typically runs from April 1 to Labor Day, when Lakeside Cemetery sees the most graveside visitors.

“A lot of maintenance goes into keeping it pretty year round,” says Ken Scheef, who serves on Lakeside’s board of trustees.

This week, the board gathered for its quarterly meeting, where the men openly discussed the changes that are affecting the way they do business.

“For the first 100 years, we sold graves at a price that allowed us to maintain the cemetery,” said Chuck Hamsmith, who manages the cemetery and serves as secretary on the board. “Now cremations have cut into that.”

During the season, he estimates the average monthly maintenance cost is $5,200. Mowing 40-some acres is never easy, especially when there are thousands of tombstones to work around, and multiple newly dug graves to tend.

Lakeside Cemetery is one of the largest association-owned cemeteries in the state. Most are private or owned by churches.

Since 1860, there have been 14,280 recorded burials, though in recent years, the number has dropped significantly.

Hamsmith said 2008 was the year they started seeing more cremations than full burials. The cost to bury an urn in the cemetery is $500, compared to $650 for a full body burial. As many as four urns can be buried in one gravesite, so many more people are holding on to the ashes, waiting so they can be buried alongside their loved ones.

“We have 49 pending burials right now,” Hamsmith said. “That’s $25,000.”

Lot and mausoleum sales, service fees and donations finance operations and maintenance, with 20 percent of lot sales directed into the cemetery’s permanent care fund. Another fund exists through special donations and gifts to help with road maintenance and other major improvements – Lakeside has more than seven miles of road winding through it.

But it’s been a long, long time since any private donor has made a considerable contribution to the cemetery, board members said, though they hope publication of their problems could change that. Particularly bleak is the state of the permanent care fund. Once built up through sales and donations, the balance is now shrinking as monies are needed to cover day-to-day operations.

“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, and hopefully, some rich dude will leave us a lot of money,” Hamsmith said.

To help solve their financial woes, the cemetery board did recently turn to grant writing, hoping to be awarded funds that could help with operating expenses. That’s when they found out their predecessors filed for the wrong nonprofit designation, back in 1941. While donations made to the cemetery are tax-exempt, the board does not qualify to receive grants. That leaves them with a decision whether to become a 501(c)3, which may or may not pay for itself.

Board members understand the consequences of a wrong choice – they could lose the cemetery.

“The worst-case would be the county would get it, and the county doesn’t want it,” said board president Ken Ringeisen. In which case Lakeside would likely be passed on to the state. “Probably it would just grow over like the rest of the cemeteries the state doesn’t take care of.”

For more information on the cemetery, visit www.fairmontlakesidecemetery.com