Final rest not what it used to be
Where will you be 100 years from now? Maybe you picture a headstone at a local cemetery; maybe an urn with your ashes will sit on a family member’s mantelpiece. Perhaps you expect your earthly remains to be scattered and gone, or buried on the back 40, becoming one with nature.
Steve Leino drove past Greenwood Cemetery for years, his only thought how pretty a spot it was. Now a board member for the nonprofit cemetery, he has a new perspective.
“It has been a remarkable experience,” said Leino. The biggest eye-opener for him was realizing that a cemetery has to run like every other business. When the non-sectarian cemetery opened just south of the city of Superior in 1900, a passenger train stopped next to the site and burials were traditional affairs, complete with caskets and headstones.
In the 1990s, board member Don Albright stuck his neck out to roll with the times. He lobbied for a columbarium, a marble monument to house cremated remains above ground. The first was built in 1999. At the time, only one out of every three burials were cremated remains. But Albright’s vision proved sound. Last year, two out of every three burials performed at Greenwood were cremated remains.
“It’s completely flipped,” Leino said.
The transition to cremation has changed the landscape at Greenwood.
“We have to be creative,” said office manager Terri Hammerbeck.
“There are many different attitudes about death and dying and funerals, and we’ve had to adjust to meet customers’ needs, just like any other business,” Leino said.
That included the construction of a second columbarium in 2007, the introduction of a cremorial park and plans for a third columbarium.
Along with traditional casket burials, cremated remains can be laid to rest at Greenwood in five different ways — in a columbarium niche, placed in a spouse’s casket, even inserted into the marker itself.
As the cemetery moves with the times, numbers have started to decline. In 1990, burials and cremations at Greenwood totaled 150; by 2013, it had dropped to 95.
It could signal a loss of interest in Greenwood, or a trend toward non-traditional scenarios that cremation makes possible.
“As far as the state’s concerned, final disposition is cremation,” said Douglas County Medical Examiner Darrell Witt. “What the family does with the ashes after that point is up to the family.”
He’s dealt with a leather bag of ashes and Scrabble tiles floating off Loon’s Foot Landing and fielded questions about whether a family member can be buried on private land. His uncle, a former Great Lakes ship captain, had his remains scattered in Lake Superior.
It’s important to know the rules before disposing of cremated remains, Witt said. The state has no regulations for burials on private land, so long as the owner permits it, but individual towns may. According to Wisconsin law, there is no minimum depth for burial of human remains and bodies don’t have to be embalmed. But if landowners do inter a family member on their land, Witt said, they should disclose that to new owners if the land is sold.
The Wisconsin DNR does not allow cremated remains to be scattered on public land or waterways.
“There is no legal right or authority for a person to dispose of ashes in public waters or public lands,” wardens wrote in response to a call center question. The answer was featured on the DNR website in September. “However, we do realize that spreading a small amount of ash material from one cremated body is not going to be noticeable and it will be quickly incorporated into the soil and not likely to cause any environmental problems.” If someone dumped ashes from burned trash, buildings or other sources on public water or lands, it would be treated as littering. “Generally, we would not cite a person for spreading out ashes from one cremated body of a family member.”
To dispose of cremated ashes legally in Lake Superior, it must be done three nautical miles off shore in international waters according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A cemetery burial offers something non-traditional methods don’t — a link for future generations.
“It’s not cheap to get buried,” Leino said, but the charges — which range from about $1,000 to $2,500 — are probably the lowest of the death costs a family will face. And it includes a deed to the plot, ensures perpetual care and provides a recorded spot for ancestors to find.
“For closure I hear so often how important it is to have a place to visit,” Hammerbeck said.
The cemetery keeps records, as well. Hammerbeck has been visited by genealogists from Norway, Australia and other countries seeking their roots.
Both Hammerbeck and Leino stressed the importance of pre-planning. When loved ones come in, they’re so distraught they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes. That can lead to indecision or squabbling over sites. The variables are endless and it’s the worst time to do logical thinking.
“By planning ahead you’re saving loved ones so much agony,” Hammerbeck said. People can pre-pay as well, locking in today’s prices. As another sign of the times, Greenwood Cemetery now takes credit cards. If families change their minds, the cemetery will buy back the gravesite or niche.
While Greenwood Cemetery must run like a business, it is a nonprofit. There are only two employees on the payroll, with the help of volunteers and a volunteer board. For information, call 715-392-2837 or stop by the office, 8402 Tower Ave., 9 a.m. to noon or 1-3 p.m. weekdays. A cemetery website is also in the works.
Hammerbeck said it should be in place by summer.