Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry will eventually run out of space.
The City of Perry recognized that fact and purchased additional land around the cemetery a few years ago for a future expansion.
“It got the point where we needed to do some real planning and valuation on how we wanted to do that expansion,” City Administrator Sven Peterson said.
He then contacted one of his former professors at Iowa State University to see if he would be interested in forming a class looking at cemetery planning. Carlton Basmajian, associate professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University, worked with Peterson to come up with the scope of the class.
Eleven ISU students took the new class, City of the Dead, this past semester. Basmajian said the initial charge was to get the students up to speed on cemeteries and burials.
The students then traveled to Perry and toured the Violet Hill Cemetery. They talked with Peterson and Cemetery Director Richard Steadman to learn the issues facing the cemetery.
The students also looked at historical and current issues facing cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Cemeteries in New York, Hong Kong and Sydney, Australia, are running out of space.
In New York, Basmajian said, “land values are so high that it’s hard to justify using the land for anything other than urban development.” Those larger cities are also experiencing population pressures.
“Perry doesn’t have that, but it does have a cemetery that’s filling up. And that’s interesting in a small community,” Basmajian said.
Projections show the current cemetery will fill up within the next decade. The additional land the City of Perry purchased, Basmajian said, will more than meet that need.
He looked at the national death rate and the demographic breakdown in Perry to come up with a projection of around 6,000 deaths in the next 50 to 60 years.
Basmajian said about 3,000 of those deaths will be full-body burials. The other half, he conservatively estimated will be cremations based on the rising trend. Around 75 percent of those cremations won’t end up in the cemetery.
Those are the numbers the ISU students used in the scenarios they presented to the City of Perry.
“The Perry cemetery gave us a real-world example of what we can do for a cemetery that’s expanding,” said Michael Pillman, a recent ISU graduate. “And what can be done to maximize the efficiency of the land that was purchased so that Perry doesn’t have to worry about any sort of space issues in the coming future.”
Peterson said a lot of the students came up with ideas for alternative burial methods. One section of the expansion would be reserved for traditional full-body burials. But other sections, he said, would be set aside for a scatter garden or a columbarium, which can store multiple urns of ashes.
“We’re looking forward to taking all of their ideas and vetting them out even further and putting them into a real plan for the cemetery,” Peterson said.
He enjoyed getting the chance to partner with ISU on the cemetery study.
“Really getting those students into a community and connected to a project I think is incredibly valuable to their education,” Peterson said.
That was especially true for Pillman, a recent graduate in community and regional planning and urban design. He plans to pursue his master’s in sociology and wants his thesis to focus on the view of death in the United States.
“That’s something that I really became passionate about and this course really helped amplify that,” Pillman said.
The course was also beneficial to the City of Perry as it moves forward with an expansion at Violet Hill Cemetery.
“I really enjoy having students involved in projects. It’s not always the exact plans that they put together, but we do have a history of taking ideas from those plans and concepts and forming them into a real project,” Peterson said.