Northfield city councilors on Tuesday entertained options relating to Oaklawn Cemetery’s request for the city to either subsidize Oaklawn operations at $30,000 per year or purchase the cemetery — including putting a portion of the 27-acre site toward a non-cemetery use.
Cemetery officials say if there is no revenue infusion to combat financial losses posed by a shift from traditional burials to cremation, the cemetery will be bankrupt by 2024. Oaklawn officials say the community cemetery is within city limits and must continue to operate to ensure Northfield pioneers are taken care of in death.
The council could decide not to intervene, have Oaklawn remain private with public financial assistance or take over the cemetery and hire public employees, which would likely increase operation costs.
During a study session, Oaklawn Cemetery Association President Duane Everson said they have hundreds of open grave spaces, adding there is wooded space that would not be conducive to graves.
Councilor Suzie Nakasian asked whether there would be opportunities to utilize land not being used for graves for other purposes. Everson replied that the request could be complicated by burial-related rules, adding graves are spread throughout the site.
Nakasian noted the city could develop a local tree stock.
Fellow Councilor Jessica Peterson White said she was interested in Nakasian’s idea, adding that the city is reluctant to take on a permanent expense without the chance of breaking even on the investment.
“Anytime the city is to take on an additional financial commitment or to consider doing that, I think we have to consider whether there are creative solutions that might reduce the burdens on the taxpayers or the community,” she said.
Councilor David DeLong advised his fellow councilors to be empathetic when considering whether to allow for non-cemetery purposes for the land.
“There is a little emotion to this one,” he said.
Although statutory cities can only give up to $10,000 per year to cemeteries, City Attorney Chris Hood said that being a city charter provides Northfield more discretion to pay more due to the request having a public purpose. If the cemetery becomes neglected or abandoned, the county board can appropriate funds. In handling a similar situation, the city of Worthington and Nobles County are partnering to care for the local cemetery.
Northfield City Administrator Ben Martig said the proposal warrants continued research and discussion with other cemeteries on their financial situations. He suggested evaluating larger cemetery trends and what Rice County’s interest/responsibility is in the process.
The Oaklawn Cemetery Association paid $25,000 in certificates of deposits last year alone to help cover the revenue loss caused by the reduction of traditional burials. That was the second recent year in which revenue at the cemetery has not kept up with expenditures. Lot sales as a percentage of cemetery revenue dropped from 43% approximately 10 years ago to 19% last year.
Cremation overtook burial as the preferred method by 2015 in the U.S. That trend is expected to grow wider through 2040, when it is estimated only 15.7% of people will choose burial. That change has been even more dramatic in Minnesota, where nearly 70% of people are choosing cremation.
Oaklawn has been in business for more than 100 years and at 27 acres is the largest public cemetery in Northfield. The cemetery has two caretakers who essentially work full-time hours in the summer mowing the lawn and conducting other maintenance.