ST. GEORGE — The year was 1862. Ulrich Bryner was the first person to be buried in the new St. George City Cemetery. Now, 153 years later, there are only a few plots left that have not been either used or reserved out of the 10,000 on the grounds.
But what is ordinarily a clean, peaceful place of repose has in recent years been the target of complaints. Among citizen criticisms: No columbarium to inter cremains; broken and chipped headstones; and usage of unfiltered water to irrigate the grounds.
Columbaria and cremation
A columbarium is a wall or place set aside for storing cremated ashes.
“I’m upset because there are no places to bury ashes anywhere in the immediate St. George area, especially Washington City, where I live and my deceased mother lived,” Washington resident KayLynn Peterson said. “She loved Washington City and wanted to be buried here.”
Neither Washington City nor the St. George City Cemetery will be constructing columbaria.
However, the Tonaquint Cemetery will soon provide a place where residents and others can memorialize loved ones who have been cremated.
“It’s under construction,” Dick Johnson, a funeral service counselor with the Cremation Center of Southern Utah, said.
Johnson referenced an architect’s conceptual drawing of the gardens.
“They’re going to build a cremation garden. They are going to have columbariums (sic) with niches in it, and I think it will be quite nice,” he said.
The cremation garden will have small plots that will be sold for the burial of cremated remains. A rock on each plot will be customized with the name and vital details of the person buried there.
Another option will be what Johnson termed an “ossuary.” In Europe, an ossuary is a common grave for bones.
“Over here (in the United States), when you’re talking cremations, it’s a common grave for cremated remains,” Johnson said.
A family can purchase a plaque on the wall near the ossuary commemorating their deceased family member.
Cremation is becoming a more popular option, Johnson said, for two main reasons: Some people choose cremation for the environmental benefits, and some choose it for the financial benefits.
On average, cremation costs are about 80 percent less than traditional burial.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not normally encourage cremation but does not have an outright ban against it. The church handbook says cremation should be a decision left to the family members and local laws and customs.
According to the church’s website, “The family of the deceased must decide whether the body should be cremated, taking into account any laws governing burial or cremation.”
In a 2013 letter to the editor, a reader said, “… The damage/erosion and disintegration by the use of unfiltered Virgin River water to the headstones is of grave (no pun intended) concern to myself and many others in our community with whom I have spoken.”
“That’s not exactly true,” Jim Hohenboken, City of St. George sexton, said.
“The water we use goes up to Skyline Pond, to a couple of settling ponds up there, then the water is gravity fed back down,” Hohenboken said. “This water is used by the cemetery, the college and a few of the parks as it goes down toward the Virgin River again.”
Hohenboken said the water is not contaminated and will not damage headstones any more than water from the municipal water supply would.
The cemetery has been criticized for watering during the day. But René Fleming, St. George City energy and water resources coordinator, said the water used by the cemetery is irrigation water — a combination of raw water from the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers and reuse water from the water treatment plant. This water is not restricted in its use.
Also in the 2013 letter to the editor, the reader said, “Why does the St. George City Cemetery not receive the same quality of care and manicured maintenance as our city parks, trails, buildings, golf courses, dog park, ball parks, historical sites and the list goes on?”
The cemetery is maintained constantly, Hohenboken said.
“It takes about three days to mow,” Hohenboken said. “In between, we try to string-trim the graves, starting at one side and working our way to the other.”
The entire cemetery is mowed every week between services and burials.
However, there has been the occasional complaint that a stone may have been chipped or cracked by a riding mower.
“My cousin is also buried out there,” Nikki Watterson, of St. George, said. “My uncle has had to replace her headstone three times since she was buried in 2004.”
Watterson blames this on the mowers used to maintain the lawn.
“We try not to hit anything,” Hohenboken said.
Water erosion, sun and age probably do more damage than mowers, he said.
“I don’t put anything in the ground anymore,” Watterson said, referring to decorations at her grandfather’s grave in the cemetery. “Everything is gone. Everything has been cut off that we took.”
A cleanup of the cemetery is held three times a year. Temporary memorials, such as flowers, flags, signs, wreaths, solar lights and other items, are removed during these cleanups, Hohenboken said. The cleanups are announced in the media and printed in the city’s utility bills, and signs give notice at the cemetery, he said.
Another concern expressed is the dirt settling around graves.
That is inevitable, Hohenboken said, and leveling is done as needed. Sod is lifted and more dirt is added to the settled area, packed down, and then the sod replaced.
The city cemetery, like much of the surrounding area, sits on bentonite soil, commonly known as “blue clay.” Blue clay absorbs water and expands in the process. It can severely damage foundations, buildings and other structures.
There is blue clay at the city cemetery, Hohenboken said, and headstones have been displaced because of it, but it is rare.
Hohenboken said the city’s crews work hard to keep the cemeteries in good shape, so loved ones of those buried there have a peaceful place to come and remember their dead.
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