Busier seasons, a lack of space and the slowly rising popularity of cremations has put a strain on South Shore cemetery workers and highlighted the need for more burial and columbarium space across the region.
In Quincy, burial rates have been on the rise for years and 2022 is set to be the busiest yet.
Between the Pine Hill, Mount Wollaston and Hall cemeteries, 269 people were either buried or cremated in 2019, 291 in 2020 and 313 in 2021. So far this year, 95 people have already been interred at Quincy cemeteries, on track to top 340 total by the end of the year.
This January, 38 funerals or cremations took place in the city, marking the busiest January in recent memory.
"Cemeteries are going to see the broader effects of what's going on in society," David Murphy, Quincy's commissioner of natural resources, said. "I could make assumptions as to why, but I really can't say. All I can say is that we are seeing an uptick."
Death data for Massachusetts is only available as recently as 2019, but the years prior showed death rates holding relatively steady. There were an average of 161 deaths per day in 2017, 162 in 2018 and 161 in 2019. Statewide death data since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is not yet available from the Department of Public Health.
Quincy cemeteries started offering Saturday services for an additional fee several years ago to keep up with demand, Murphy said. Last year, there were burials on 46 of the year's 52 Saturdays.
"These guys are working six days per week and they're working their tails off. It also means we are more rapidly running out of space," he said.
Murphy's department has submitted a proposal to the city council requesting $16.4 million to expand Pine Hill Cemetery by 7 acres, adding more than 13,600 interment spaces, including the city's first cremation niches. City councilors put off voting on the proposal at their most recent meeting, demanding to see a more detailed cost breakdown before allocating the money.
Joseph Walker, business development and project manager at Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree, said the last few months have been "unusually busy," but that winter is always a busy season in the industry.
"It's very seasonal," he said. "A person needs to really look at a five- or seven-year trend to really understand what's going on. COVID taught us that you can have a year or two of things being just off the charts, but we do seem to be out of that, thank heaven above."
Unlike Quincy cemeteries, which are available to only the city's residents, private cemeteries like Blue Hill are open to anyone. Walker said the Braintree cemetery – which has 60 active acres – is doing just fine on space, in part because it still has 35 acres that can be developed as need arises and in part because of rising cremation rates "in Massachusetts, in New England and across the country," Walker said.
The cemetery is working to install several new columbaria and columbarium garden space to keep up with demand.
"It's societal trends, it's religious trends, there are a lot of factors," Walker said of the popularity of cremation.
While the proposed Pine Hills expansion would add the city's first cremation niches, Murphy said cremation doesn't seem to be as popular in Quincy as it is in other parts of the region. He attributed the popularity of traditional burials to societal and religious traditions in two of the city's major populations: Catholics and those of Asian descent.
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In Plymouth, Cemetery Superintendent Ken King said the number of cremation burials has well surpassed traditional burials – the town did almost 1,400 cremations in 2021. So far this year, there have been 82 full burials and 108 cremation burials.
"We haven't had that amount in quite a few years," King said. "You honestly just don't know what's going to happen from year to year."
Plymouth is also looking to open more columbarium walls in its cemeteries. Estimates say 70% of burials in Massachusetts will be cremation burials by 2030. Right now, it's at about 60%.
"That is slowly creeping up," King said.
Like Quincy, Plymouth is also facing space challenges.
"We're having the same growing pains that a lot of other communities are having," King said. "We're fortunate to have seven still-active cemeteries, but they are slowly running out of room."
Plymouth Select Board member Harry Helm said at a recent meeting that plots have sold so quickly in Plymouth because, until earlier this year, the rates for burials hadn't changed in nearly a decade. Costs are going up in Quincy as well. In both communities, pre-need sales on cemetery plots have been halted.
“The only thing we can do is slow down the sales until we have another cemetery in place,” King said at the March meeting.
The average burial plot cost in Massachusetts is $1,764, but Plymouth and Quincy have long sold plots at well below that cost. Plymouth recently increased its price from from $800 to $1,200 for residents, and from $1,000 to $2,400 for nonresidents.
For the last 20 or more years, plots at Pine Hill have cost $1,375 each and there is a $700 "opening fee" charged each time a casket is buried. Each plot has space for two caskets. Once the proposed expansion is finished, new plots will cost $2,225 and the opening fee will increase to $1,100, Murphy said.
At Blue Hill Cemetery, an average two-urn niche costs $2,000 and the average two-space plot is $4,500. Walker would not say how many burials the cemetery does per year.
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Reach Mary Whitfill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Burials, cremations and costs are up at South Shore cemeteries