Will Prospect Hill be turned over to the town?
The Enterprise — Michael Koff
A solemn angel tops on obelisk marking the graves of Thomas Holms; he was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1816, and died in Albany in 1885, and his wife Harriet Coley, who lived from 1822 to 1904. Some of the graves in Prospect Hill are simple markers, while others are elaborate mausoleums with intricate carvings.
GUILDERLAND — Prospect Hill Cemetery, which stretches over 50 acres on a hillside along busy Western Avenue, and has been a town landmark since the 1850s, is facing financial difficulties.
The vice president of the cemetery’s board of trustees, John O’Mara, said he is concerned the not-for-profit cemetery association may have to turn the burial ground over to the town if it can’t figure out a way to keep afloat.
In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, O’Mara put out a call for a new generation of plot owners to serve as trustees.
“The key to our success is going to be finding the right individual to step up,” he said, noting that some of the trustees are getting to an age where they can no longer serve.
Prospect Hill Cemetery was founded in 1854, when the land was donated by the Veeder family, according to the town’s historian, Alice Begley.
John P. Veeder was appointed to create the bylaws.
At a meeting of “special property holders,” in 1862, Henry Sloan made a motion to designate a portion of the land to the burials of fallen soldiers.
The impetus for the fallen-soldiers lot was the Civil War, but, said O’Mara, there is a soldier buried there who served in the War of 1812, along with soldiers who served in all the wars since then.
O’Mara attributes the cemetery’s financial struggles to a variety of issues, including the nearby Saratoga National Cemetery, which provides free burials for members of the military and their spouses, as well as less demand for plots in general.
The cemetery is supported by the money it makes through plot purchases and burials. The current price is $750 for a plot for one grave and $800 for a burial. The prices were raised in May from $550 and $600.
“We’re still trying to keep the costs down as much as possible,” said O’Mara.
In 2005, a columbarium was installed at the cemetery, with 128 niches for cremated remains. The cost of the columbarium was roughly $30,000, said O’Mara, and only 10 or 12 niches have been sold in the past nine years.
Every time a plot is sold or a grave is opened for a burial, he said, a percentage of the cost must be put into a permanent maintenance fund, as specified by state law; cemeteries are governed by the State Department of New York’s Division of Cemeteries.
O’Mara said the board has used most of its savings to keep the cemetery going. The money, he said, has been used for maintenance and paying the superintendent, who is responsible for upkeep and opening graves.
The annual cost for maintenance is roughly $50,000, and last year the cemetery had approximately 25 traditional burials and a dozen cremation burials.
The money in the permanent maintenance fund, he said, is not supposed to be used, but it can be invested, in which case the interest can be used.
Interest rates are so low, though, said O’Mara, that hardly any money is generated through investing.
Many small cemeteries in northern, central, and western New York are facing the same struggles that Prospect Hill is dealing with, said Laz Benitez, a representative of the Department of State.
Locally, The Enterprise regularly receives letters from boards of small cemeteries in the Hilltowns and Guilderland, seeking donations. A cemetery in New Scotland claimed hardship as it sought income from a cellular tower, which was erected.
The prominent issues, said Benitez, are declining populations, poor economic conditions, increasing rates of cremation, and low interest rates on fixed-income investments.
Benitez said the Division of Cemeteries has given advice for cutting costs, such as working with volunteer groups to organize clean-up projects, reducing the frequency of mowing, considering the use of an outside contractor, and seeking assistance from the town or village where the cemetery is located.
The state also suggests fund-raising and increasing lot prices.
O’Mara said that the Prospect Hill Cemetery trustees mailed out 1,000 letters to town residents earlier this year asking for donations, and they plan to mail out 1,000 more soon.
He is hoping that the 50-acre cemetery will be able to generate the funds to clear more land and provide the space for 800 to 1,000 more plots; currently, about 30 acres are in use.
“Some cemeteries have no room to grow,” he said, “but we do, if we can just maintain our costs.”
If Prospect Hill can’t remain solvent, though, the town will be required by law to take over the maintenance and upkeep.
“We wouldn’t have a choice,” said Supervisor Kenneth Runion.
The town took over the care of a cemetery in Guilderland Center nearly five years ago, he said, and it has not resulted in extra costs to the town.
“We have our parks department do the work,” said Runion.
If the town has to take over Prospect Hill Cemetery, he said, it likely wouldn’t be a problem for the parks department to do the maintenance there, too.
Begley, who has served on the board, said she just wants to see the Prospect Hill Cemetery remain in operation.
“It’s like the history of Guilderland,” she said.
Begley’s husband is buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, and she plans to be, too.
“It’s very important to have a cemetery with your departed ones close by,” she said.