MISSOULA — A land deal with the railroad in 1884 led to the establishment of Missoula’s now historic City Cemetery, making it one of the oldest in the Missoula Valley. Over the next century, the cemetery grew in size, from 15 acres to 80 acres today.
But end of life decisions in the 21st century aren’t what they were 60 years ago, let alone 126 years ago, leaving experts to suggest that Missoula’s cemetery has an abundance of land that could be diverted to other uses.
In a city where land is limited and housing is in high demand, 30 acres of flat ground near existing public services may be as precious as saffron or gold.
“The reality for us, as we did our land-use analysis, is that there are 7,000 unused graves at the cemetery today,” said Will Sloane, a cemetery consultant. “They are absorbing graves at the rate of 35 per year, which leaves over 200 years of active life. That is certainly sufficient given our inability to predict outside the next 20 years what’s going to happen with the cemetery.”
The City of Missoula is interested in a portion of the cemetery’s unused land to meet current and future housing needs in the North Reserve-Scott Street area. With funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the city contracted L.F. Sloan Consulting to study current burial trends and compose a strategic plan for the cemetery property.
Of the 80 acres of land dedicated to the City Cemetery, roughly 30 acres are being used for other purposes. The remaining 50 acres have been developed and plotted for burial, though it may take centuries to fill, according to the study.
“The first very significant change is that a significant percentage of people are now choosing cremation as a step in the funeral process,” said Larry Sloane. “In 1971 when I spent my first day in a funeral office, the national cremation rate was 3% and today it’s 54%. I didn’t predict that growth.”
Sloane, who has spent nearly 40 years planning and implementing cemetery projects across the country, cited a number of cultural changes that affect end-of-life decisions. Divorce rates and the number of fractured families have increased. Mobility and relocation has made the “family plot” less relevant than it once was.
Increased longevity and extended illnesses also have changed the bereavement process for many families. Increasingly, Sloane said funerals are seen as less significant to family members.
With all the demographic and social changes, Sloane said cemeteries have had a difficult time remaining relevant. Other cemeteries in the city, including the veterans cemetery and the Catholic cemetery, have taken a bite out of the market share, especially as burials diminish.
“The city cemetery is at a significant disadvantage from a marketing perspective, and it’s seeing a decline in its operations,” said Sloane. “It’s market share 50 years ago was around 85% and today it’s 10%. In that context, there is certainly access land in the cemetery.”
Back in the middle of the 20th century, Sloane said the City Cemetery and the Catholic cemetery both acquired land as a form of investment. At one point, the two cemeteries had plans to merge once the need arose.
But the need never came and the two cemeteries never grew beyond their current boundaries.
“There is a lot of access land out there that could be incorporated into a master plan for that side of town,” Sloane said. “Our analysis makes it crystal clear there is excess land on the property at the cemetery.”
While funeral choices have changed, so too has land use. Those decisions have become smarter with a growing focus on inward development, sustainability and walkable communities. To some extent, the subdivisions of the 1950s have fallen out of vogue, as have strip malls and auto-oriented street designs.
In 2014, the City of Missoula approved the North Reserve-Scott Street Master Plan, which detailed future growth in the area. It called for mixed-use development with a blend of housing, business and retail options. A network of roads was envisioned, along with an interchange at I-90 and Scott Street.
Already, a number of large housing developments have been approved or proposed for the area. The city last month hinted at a deal that could see nearly 10 acres of land off Scott Street redeveloped with housing in a deal worth up around $20 million.
“There’s a lot going on this area – the Scott Street area,” said Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works, which oversees the City Cemetery. “The cemetery’s strategic plan and Public Works facility plan are two pieces of that puzzle that could help implement the overall master plan.”
The 30 acres of unused land at the City Cemetery deemed as surplus could further accommodate growth in the area and meet other community needs beyond burials.
The cemetery master plan suggests that proceeds from the sale of any surplus land be diverted back to the cemetery to build a chapel and columbarium. Any future planning and growth beyond the cemetery should keep the serenity of the cemetery in mind.
The cemetery’s proposed strategic plan is expected to go to the Missoula City Council in January for adoption.
“It’s high level and has a lot of suggested tasks and next steps,” Keene said of the plan. “There will be additional work to do to design those features. But it gives us a good direction that helps us internally with the cemetery and externally with what’s happening around it.”