As legend has it, Dry Creek Cemetery in the Foothills northwest of Boise was established more than 140 years ago, when an Oregon Trail pioneer family lost a child and buried her there on the hillside.
That story is not documented, but there is no doubt Dry Creek is one of the oldest cemeteries in the Valley, with an inspiring vista that stretches from Caldwell to Bronco Stadium.
But these days, the venerable cemetery is struggling to stay solvent, said Danny Seamons, head of the board of directors.
He blames a societal shift to cremation. More than half of the families who patronize the cemetery now opt for cremation over casket burials, he said.
That’s a national trend. In 2000, about 26 percent of Americans chose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Today, 41 percent of Americans do. And by 2025, the group estimates nearly 60 percent of Americans will be cremated when they die.
While the Valley’s population is increasing, the number of traditional burials at Dry Creek has fallen to 1980s levels, Seamons said.
The cemetery offers interment for both caskets and urns with cremated remains, known as cremains. But a marked plot for cremains brings in about a third of the revenue of a traditional casket plot with a monument — $300 versus $1,000.
Of course, an unknown number of families are circumventing cemeteries altogether by keeping loved ones’ ashes or scattering them privately.
MORE LAYOFFS ARE POSSIBLE
Ada County owns Dry Creek Cemetery, which became its own taxing district in 1936. The cemetery gets 33 percent of its income from taxes on property owners who live in the district and relies on plot sales to make up the rest of its annual $465,000 costs. Revenue is falling each month.
“We’re OK for now, but our reserves are going,” said Seamons.
The cemetery laid off two of its six full-time employees this fall, and more cuts may be coming. Full-time staffers may be cut to part time. Selling Dry Creek to a national burial company is another option if help doesn’t arrive, Seamons said. The cemetery has received purchase offers in the past.
He hopes the plight of the cemetery — home to graves of pioneers, Civil War dead and others — is important enough to the community that people will want to help. One man left property to Dry Creek in his will.
“We sold that land and had a CD that helped support us for years. Unfortunately, that’s all gone now,” said Seamons.
Getting voters to approve a tax levy is another possibility.
“I only pay about $12 a year for the cemetery district. A small increase would be enough to keep us going,” said Seamons.
DIFFERENT FAMILIES, DIFFERENT CHOICES
Cremation rates vary across the Valley. They’re lower than Dry Creek’s at Pioneer and Morris Hill, two cemeteries owned by the city of Boise.
Despite the cost — plots with standing monuments in Pioneer run $2,000, $1,400 in Morris Hill — 63 percent of customers still choose a casket burial, said Ken Reeves, Boise Parks Division manager. Revenue so far hasn’t suffered from the cremation trend, he said.
He credits designated sections at Morris Hill for Catholics, Jews and Muslims — all religions that traditionally discourage cremation — as a possible reason that the number of casket burials remain high.
Cremations at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery are even higher than at Dry Creek. More than 65 percent of families opt for cremation.
That cemetery doesn’t face the financial challenges Dry Creek faces, said Director Zach Rodriguez. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reimburses the cemetery $700 for each veteran buried there, whether he or she has a traditional casket burial or is cremated with ashes placed in the cemetery’s columbarium wall — the vertical structure that houses scores of urns in separate compartments.
“A lot of national veterans’ cemeteries are following the cremation trend because they’re running out of land,” said Rodriguez.
Some, he said, offer cremation as their only option.
THE COMFORT OF TRADITION
Seamons, an Idaho native, spent his youth making regular pilgrimages to the graves of relatives buried in eastern Idaho. It’s a comfort to him. He doesn’t understand why so many people feel otherwise.
“I know where every aunt, uncle, everyone is buried,” said Seamons.
He does acknowledge that families, just like cemeteries, are struggling and often have to go with less-expensive options.
Modern families also tend to spread out across the country and don’t have the ties he has to his home state.
“With 136 acres, we have space to bury people for another 100 years. Maybe 200,” said Seamons. “I don’t want this thing to go belly up on my watch.”