The 103-year-old Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, on the edge of downtown, is home to thousands of grave markers of all shapes and sizes, from simple ground placards to whale jawbones.
In the northernmost sections, though, the headstones are more sparse, and ground has been broken in fewer places. Even as the rest of the cemetery fills up a rate that may leave no vacancy in as little as eight years, the unused portions of certain private tracts may remain that way for hundreds of years, according to cemetery director Rob Jones.
The Anchorage cemetery is managed by the municipality, but only about half of its 25 sections, or tracts, are actually available for public use. The other half are privately owned by fraternal and religious groups that dictate who’s allowed to be buried there, and, in return, pay the city annually for their share of the maintenance costs.
The 22-acre cemetery contains enough space for 17,525 grave plots, Jones said, nearly 80 percent of which have already been claimed. Most of those are public plots. The private portions are filling up much more slowly, he said.
The unusual dual-ownership structure goes all the way back to the cemetery’s pre-statehood beginnings. Shortly after President Woodrow Wilson established the Anchorage cemetery by executive order in 1915, he specified a number of provisions for how the space would operate. Burial plots had to be made available to the public at no charge, for instance. Lifetime reservations are available for a fee.
Wilson also ordered that up to half the cemetery’s three-quarter-acre tracts be sold at auction to “qualified religious and fraternal organizations," Jones said.
Seven organizations — the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage, the Loyal Order of the Moose, the Free and Accepted Masons, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Pioneers of Alaska, and Benevolent Protective Order of Elks — bought up the available tracts. All but one, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, still own their original tract land.
Members of certain religions, including Islam, Orthodox Judaism and Reformed Judaism, later asked that portions of the cemetery be set aside for their faithful, as well, as some followers believe in religiously-segregated burials. This land is still technically public though; the religious groups don’t own the tracts.
But membership in fraternal organizations has declined over the last hundred years. Burials in the private tracts now represent only a fraction of the 180 casket interments the cemetery performs each year. Jones said he knew of only seven burials that have been performed or scheduled this year in the private tracts.
“We have quite a few plots left," said Bruce Haas, administrator for Moose Lodge 1534 in Anchorage. "I don’t think any of the tract owners are up against the wall for space.”
That’s in spite of the fact that the Moose are relatively liberal about who they allow to be buried in their tract, accepting members as well as immediate family members. Their next door neighbors in the cemetery, the Masons, are more restrictive, only allowing the Mason, his wife and any minor children to be interred.
Many organization members choose not to be buried in the Anchorage cemetery, opting for cremation or burial elsewhere, organization leaders said.
Haas attributed his lodge’s relatively infrequent use of cemetery space to the fact that many members move away from Alaska in their later years, seeking family or warmer climates.
Masonic Lodge 17 in Anchorage, for its part, is comprised in large part of veterans who choose to be buried in the National Cemetery at Fort Richardson, where they receive a free burial in addition to a plot, said lodge chaplain James Zuke. That’s a service the Anchorage cemetery doesn’t extend for free.
At the current rate, Jones estimates that the lesser-used private tracts in the Anchorage cemetery won’t be full for another 200 years. One portion of Mason tract has been sitting unused for so long that the cemetery has started using it as a seating space for events, he said.
Meanwhile, public space is going fast. Burial plot reservations have tripled in recent years, an increase Jones attributes to the cemetery’s tours and outreach efforts. Today, nearly 14,000 plots have been claimed.
If the trend continues, the public portion of the cemetery will be full within the next eight to 10 years, Jones said. After that, if no other alternative is developed, it will have to become a historical site rather than an active cemetery, apart from the Columbarium wall, where cremains are stored and where plenty of space still remains.
In the past, private tract owners have tried to help relieve some of that pressure. The Masons offered about eight years ago to give a 50 by 150-foot portion of their unused land -- the same portion now used as an event space -- back to the municipality for public use, according to Jones.
"It was just something we wanted to do to help the community,” said Zuke, who served on the cemetery’s advisory board at the time.
The municipality, though, rejected that deal, the two men claimed.
Municipal spokeswoman Kristin DeSmith said she wasn’t able to find anyone in city government who knew about the deal, and Robin Ward, director of the Anchorage Real Estate Department, didn’t respond to messages last week.
Jones, however, said he believes it was the small size of the land being transferred that made the municipality balk. Cemetery plots are a matter of feet, not acres, a scale that’s not typically used in real estate matters, and that may have caused a problem, he said.
As the cemetery approaches full capacity, though, it may have to revisit that possibility again, Jones said, especially since land transfers have been done there before.
In the 1960′s, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sold their tract to the American Legion, which was unable to shoulder the cost of maintaining it. The American Legion then gave it back to the municipality, although it’s still being used as a space for veterans, Jones said.
“I guess because it was the whole piece, it made it a lot easier for the muni to go ahead with the deal,” he said.
If that proves to be a non-starter, though, the cemetery will have to explore other options for extending its lifespan. Jones has considered expanding east across Fairbanks Street, where a number of businesses, including a motel, an auto body shop, and a dry cleaner, currently reside.
That would add about 4,000 more plots, Jones said, and the cemetery would be able to manage the land differently since it wouldn’t be part of the executive order — burial plots could actually be sold there, for instance, he said. He doesn’t think that’s likely to happen, though.
“It’s such a valuable stretch of property, it would be a hard sell,” he said.
The municipality could also develop a second cemetery elsewhere in the town, but that’s also unlikely, according to Jones — so much so that it hasn’t even been part of the discussion as an option for extending the cemetery’s lifespan, he said.
That leaves people who want casket burials with few options once the cemetery fills up. The only other in-town cemetery is the nonprofit Angelus Memorial Park in South Anchorage, which general manager Ben Spink estimates will be open for another 50 to 100 years.
Unlike the downtown cemetery, Angelus sells its gravesites, though purchasing a site also gives members voting rights in the nonprofit, similar to a shareholder structure.
Jones said it’s possible a public cemetery under development in Girdwood and a proposed cemetery in Eagle River-Chugiak may take some strain off the Anchorage cemetery in the future — that was a selling point for the Girdwood cemetery. In the meantime, though, taking another stab at private land transfer may be the most immediate solution.
Haas, of the Moose, said if it ever does become a need, his organization would consider it.
“We do have ample room, and we’re known to be generous,” he said.