For 155 years, the Bethlehem Cemetery has been a quiet respite in town but it is dealing with numerous challenges now and trying to tackle rumors about its ownership, lot availability and becoming closed or abandoned in the near future.Provided photo
BETHLEHEM — Bethlehem Cemetery operators want the public to know that contrary to several misconceptions, it is not owned by the town, there are still acres of lots available and it is not in danger of closing down or becoming abandoned.
Established in 1865, the 30-acre cemetery, located by the intersection of Kenwood and Elsmere Avenues, contains at least 3,500 known burials and is owned by the Bethlehem Cemetery Association, consisting of all lot owners who bought the rights to have loved ones buried there. Services include in-ground full casket and cremation burials, above-ground cremation burials, memorialization, and pre-planning for funerals and burial arrangements.
Steve Riedel, the association’s president, said it is important to inform the public that the misconceptions, which he said began taking form five years ago, are not true and the Bethlehem Cemetery is still capable of serving the community for generations ahead.
Regina “Reggie” Futia, the association’s secretary and administrator, said, “We’re still profitable and we’re in the black. We’re still here.”
Futia showed a map of how the cemetery is divided into over a dozen lots which are alphanumerically labeled. She said that lots H through K, which take up at least four acres at the property’s southern end, are part of the cemetery but are still covered in trees and vegetation. These undeveloped lots would be cleared in 150 years’ time to make room for future generations to be buried there, she said.
Also, lots F and G, which are adjacent to lots H and I directly to the north, were just cleared of trees a decade ago and along with lot C, there are many vacant lots available.
These factors refute the misconception that the cemetery is running out of space, Futia said.
“Through the years, we get some calls from people interested in buying a lot and after meeting with them at the cemetery to give them a tour, that’s when they say that they’ve heard we’re running out of space,” Futia said. “No, we’re not actually. We’ve got four undeveloped acres and at least two acres [lots C, F and G] that are readily available, and you can almost hear the relief from them.”
Futia and Riedel brought up that the misconception of the cemetery running out of space may be linked to another misconception that it could close down or get abandoned anytime soon.
According to the association’s data that Futia reported about the number of burials at the cemetery in the last decade, there was no continuous decline which appeared to not be concerning. There were 45 burials in 2010, 34 in 2011, 39 in 2012, 55 in 2013, 64 in 2014, 60 in 2015, 58 in 2016, 37 in 2017, 52 in 2018 and 39 in 2019.
Despite available vacant lots and the above data, Riedel said the cemetery is facing several challenges.
If lot owners do not pay for their respective lots, the association would not have enough money to maintain the cemetery like mowing and snowplowing. “End-of-life expenses are high too because not only are people paying for a loved one’s medical care just to ease their suffering or pain but when the person passes away, you’ve got costs for a funeral, casket, burial or headstone,” Futia said. “Also, more people are becoming more environmental-conscious so they don’t want to take up space [like a burial site] which also could help keep costs down.”
The National Funeral Directors Association, an international funeral service association that represents funeral homes in the U.S. and 49 countries, reported that in 2017, the median cost of a funeral with a vault, viewing and burial was $8,755, a slight increase from $8,508 in 2014.
Futia added that she noticed people, especially starting with the baby boomer generation, prefer cremating their loved ones’ bodies instead of burying them in a cemetery; or keeping their loved ones’ ashes at home or scattering them elsewhere; or burying them at sea. “What we also see is that people are donating their bodies to science more and it usually takes one to two years for a medical establishment to finish their study on a particular body and then it’s cremated and returned to the family,” she said.
Also, people may donate their organs and tissue after death to others who need them to survive or for science or medical research, including bone tissue, heart valves, kidneys and lungs. The American Association of Tissue Banks, a transplant organization that accredits over 100 national tissue banks, reported in its website that 1.75 million tissue transplants are performed in the U.S. every year.
But these challenges have not caused the Bethlehem Cemetery to be in critical danger business-wise, Riedel and Futia said.
Looking ahead, Futia said, “Our first attack is education and talking to the people and explain what we do and what’s going on at the cemetery.”
One example is how Bethlehem Town Historian Susan Leath has been hosting two public tours of the cemetery every June and October since 2018 through the Parks and Recreation department.
“I was always fascinated by old cemeteries, stones and people’s names and the town has had some notable local families like Nathaniel Adams and his wife from 1835, and the Slingerland family,” Leath said. “Cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful places and you can think of the past and people who came before us. It’s also a nice walk when I do the tour in the fall. It’s also interesting to see the iconography on the stones and different symbols and images there.”
Leath’s tour mainly guides people through lots 1 through 5, located at the Bethlehem Cemetery’s northern end, which is the final resting place for many historical individuals and families who were the first to be buried on the property in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Leath said, however, that she was not aware of the misconceptions Riedel and Futia brought up.
“The cemetery seems to be doing fine and there’s plenty of open space in the back,” Leath said, adding that dozens of residents have already taken her tour so far. “I do the tours to promote Bethlehem history and I had reached out to [the Bethlehem Cemetery Association] about my idea for a tour in 2018 and they were very receptive.”
Riedel said the cemetery is also the final resting place for many local military veterans who were active in conflicts including the Spanish-American War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korean War and Vietnam War.
This year, Leath’s two tours will happen on June 27 and Oct. 3. If interested, contact her at [email protected] or at 518-439-4955, ext. 1160.
While the Bethlehem Cemetery Association continues to address the aforementioned misconceptions and promote Leath’s tours, Riedel concluded, “We’re still here to serve you, the community. We’re in good shape but like anybody or any business, we could be in better shape.”
For more information, visit www.bethlehemcemetery.com.