Olathe needs to breathe new life into its cemetery, consultants advised the city recently.
The 150-year-old cemetery is estimated to reach its capacity in 15 years, which will cut off its revenue, if the city doesn’t act, according to a study done by CPRA, a consulting firm based in Colorado.
Its findings were presented at the council meeting recently.
In the fall, the city had asked CPRA to conduct a valuation report and site study of the Olathe Memorial Cemetery, which is located at 738 N. Chestnut Sr.
The sprawling lawn speckled with gravestones and memorial plaques represents a piece of Olathe history — and American history.
Buried in the cemetery are early Olathe settlers who had made their way west on ox-drawn covered wagons. Soldiers from the Civil War and World War I are laid to rest there, as well as two Kansas governors.
“It’s a trusted resource in the community,” said Justin Whatley, a consultant for CPRA. “I’ve evaluated hundreds of cemeteries and I can tell you, without question, this one is in excellent condition. It’s beautifully cared for.”
When it comes to the cemetery’s future, the city has several options, Whatley said.
One would be for the city to sell the cemetery. But that’s a risk, he warned, since there’s no guarantee a new owner would properly care for the property.
If the city wishes to hold on to the property, it needs to think outside the box in order to generate revenue.
There are currently 2,876 empty lots.
One way of adding to that number could be reclaiming burial sites, Whatley said.
At the Olathe Memorial Cemetery, 1,600 graves have been deemed reclaimable. Those are plots that were bought more than 50 years ago but have not been used.
In Kansas, it is allowable to reclaim burial sites that are 50 years or older, said Brian Nilges, cemetery manager. It requires a lengthy process, however, involving city council approval and a public search for heirs or descendants to the deceased.
Increasing the number of burial lots is important for earning more revenue for maintenance and serving more people.
“We need to look forward to the future,” Whatley said. “Baby boomers are here in full force.”
He also suggested using the cemetery as an educational tool, whether to create historical programs or collaborate on genealogical projects.
Other suggestions included better marketing of the cemetery, competitive pricing, renovating the chapel, adding a cemetery ambassador to provide service to families, offering new cemetery merchandise, such as grave plots and family estates, and offering a wider variety of cremation burials.
Extending the life of the cemetery and developing it in creative ways to keep the revenue stream going is vital, Whatley said. Otherwise, it could become a serious situation.
“If you do nothing, revenue will rapidly decrease as business goes away,” he said.
Councilwoman Marge Vogt found the presentation eye-opening.
“This is very interesting and something we definitely need to think about,” she told the council. “Looking at all this data, I think staff needs to look into this.”
Nilges hopes to get the ball rolling in the next few months.
In a couple weeks, he and other city staff members will meet to discuss the findings and decide which ideas are worth pursuing. They may even seek out consultants to help create a master plan.
“I’m very optimistic we can make good progress,” Nilges said. “We really do need to revitalize the cemetery and make sure it’s a good place for families for the next 150 years.”