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Business is booming at the Langley cemetery

Not all is fiscal gloom and doom in Langley.

There’s a mini land rush in town — for burial plots at the city cemetery.

“Business is booming, all right,” Langley Finance Director Debbie Mahler said Monday. “Maybe it’s the economy. Who knows?”

She said the city sold more than twice as many burial plots this past year than were sold during peak years in the past two decades.

“Sales last year were more than I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Mahler said. “We just had a run. I’m not sure why.”

Marilyn Strong, president of the city’s volunteer Cemetery Board, was equally nonplussed.

“It was like ‘Wow, where does this come from?’” she said.

Mahler said the city sold 45 burial plots in 2010. The previous high through the past two decades had been around 20, with a typical year’s total about eight to a dozen.

The demand in 2010 was so great, in fact, that the city council on Monday night approved a nearly three-fold increase in the cemetery maintenance fund in the 2011 budget to reflect the increase in revenue.

Last year’s budgeted fund, which covers maintenance and operation of historic Langley Woodmen Cemetery at the southern edge of town, was $9,444; this year’s fund is now budgeted at $24,314.

But it’s not all gravy, Strong said, noting that the city has increased fees and charged the cemetery for maintenance. She said the Cemetery Board has worked with city staff to try to find ways to reduced maintenance costs, “and now I think it’s sustainable,” she said.

One change will be to contract out mowing, instead of paying for a city public works employee, Strong said.

“We just can’t afford what it costs the city to do it,” she said.

Mahler and Strong both said some of the increased demand at the cemetery reflects the availability last year of new green-burial plots. But there was also an increase in demand for regular sites, Mahler said.

“It was about half and half,” she said.

Mahler said that many buyers are local, but that a large portion of the plots sold last year went to off-islanders, many of whom divide their time between the South End and the mainland.

Business has been so good that the Cemetery Board is considering raising the price of regular burial plots to take advantage of the boom and to meet increased maintenance costs.

The city currently charges $600 for a standard plot. Mahler said the board is eyeing an increase to $700 or $750.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” Strong said.

The price for a green burial plot would remain the same as last year, however — $1,200 plus a one-time maintenance fee of $400, Mahler said.

A green plot isn’t that much more expensive than a standard one, however, since purchasers of a standard plot must also buy a casket liner, which can run about $500, Mahler said.

Even if the rates go up, Mahler said, the Langley cemetery is still a bargain.

“Some places on the mainland charge thousands,” she said.

Mahler said about a quarter of the original

80 green-burial plots have been sold, with many buyers taking advantage of a $200 discount offered in the first six months.

Mahler said that nearly 60 of the green-burial plots remain available, along with hundreds of standard plots.

Green burial refers to rituals, disposal methods and products that avoid toxic chemicals or non-biodegradable materials. Burials must be in biodegradable containers.

Mahler said there are no plans for major renovations to the cemetery despite the increase in revenue, although the Cemetery Board still hopes at some point to establish a columbarium to house cremated remains.

“It’s on our wish list, but it probably won’t happen this year,” Strong said of the columbarium. “We’re looking at different styles, but we haven’t decided that yet. We have to get maintenance costs under control first.”

Meanwhile, she said, the unveiling of the new green-burial plots may have set people to thinking about the future, perhaps accounting for the increase in sales.

“We’re not so good in this country in thinking about death,” Strong said. “But we’re not in denial on this island, and I take it as a positive that we’re thinking ahead.”

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