Girdwood Cemetery Proposal Gradually Moves Forward
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
“People don’t like to think about death, but it’s something we share, you know?”
Tommy O’Malley, Cemetery Committee Chair
Anchorage Cemetery is nearly full, and there is no land in Anchorage Bowl left for a cemetery.
Girdwood used to have a cemetery over 50 years ago, but the 1964 earthquake damaged it, and the human remains were moved to Sunrise Cemetery, across Turnagain Arm from Bird Point. Today, a proposed cemetery in Girdwood is in the design phase that keeps as much of the wild setting as possible.
In the April 2015 municipal election, Girdwood residents voted with 68 percent in favor to give the Girdwood Board of Supervisors (GBOS) the power to tax for a cemetery. At the Oct. 2016 GBOS meeting, supervisors voted to add $20,000 to the cemetery budget and have committed money to it every year since. The funds have led to an environmental study, the design phase and the budget phase, which have cost about $100,000.
With a total estimated cost of $4.7 million, including 25 percent for contingency costs, the cemetery construction would be completed in four phases. Most of the work would be completed in Phase 1, which would construct the parking area, a central activity area, walkways, a columbarium and a bridge over California Creek. Phases 2-4 would continue development of walkways, with a cost estimate under $1 million.
The site is located at MP .5 on Crow Creek Road, across from the bus turnaround. The design offers low maintenance grounds keeping, and snowplowing will be done with GBOS funding. The Muni’s Health and Human Services manages the cemeteries.
In order to pay for the proposed project, a bond will have to be approved with an area-wide vote. Rather than proceed alone, GBOS’ Cemetery Committee will wait to pair with Chugiak/Eagle River and its possible cemetery bond proposal to increase voter support for a ballot measure. However, the six community councils in Chugiak/Eagle River have just begun the cemetery proposing process and, if successful, will take a couple of years to get where the Cemetery Committee is now.
To learn more about the proposed cemetery, the Gazette met with Cemetery Committee Chair Tommy O’Malley at The Bake Shop in Girdwood. He has been one of the main proponents of the project by advocating for it for years and serving on the Cemetery Committee. He said the idea first came up about 15 years ago and kept progressing to the current design phase.
Describing the first phase of the project and its design features, O’Malley said, “The first phase is clearing the land, and they’re going to have to raise the grade up a little bit and put some drainage in there. It also includes main trails and a bridge across California Creek, which is a quarter of a million dollars right there.”
“The trail is going to be extended into Beaver Pond Trail to connect it to the cemetery,” O’Malley said. “It’s symbolic and it’s practical because you want to have the cemetery to be a park instead of just a standalone cemetery. You want to integrate it so that people will be able to park in the parking area and then ski on the trails, and they are pretty skiable.”
O’Malley discussed the strategy being used to win bond approval. Because Anchorage voters do not vote positively for a Girdwood only ballot measure, even if it costs them no money, delaying the bond to wait for Chugiak/Eagle River combines both constituencies for a greater chance of success.
“We’re going to go for an area-wide municipal bond in 2021,” O’Malley said. “That will give Eagle River the time to do the study, the plan and come up with a cost estimate. Then we’ll put their costs and our costs together. That’s what will be bonded, so the cemeteries can start to be built. If the bond passes, we could have a cemetery by 2022, which would be amazing.”
To pass the bond, Anchorage voters must be persuaded. O’Malley has begun meeting with religious officials of varied beliefs to inform them about the issue and the bond measure and why a cemetery is important to them and their congregations.
“It’s one of the church’s duties or responsibilities to help parishioners or congregations at the end of life,” O’Malley said. “It’s called an act of grace for the church to help people, the survivors to do that ritual or ceremony at the end to commit the body to the ground for whatever reason.”
O’Malley received a little help to refine his approach and make his pitch more persuadable from Girdwood Chapel’s Pastor David Hall.
“I met with David Hall. He’s been coaching me on the approach to talk with ministers and present the idea for their congregations. People want to have a place to go when they’re dead, and if there’s no place to go, it sets up an uncertainty. I never figured on that before. I’m probably not the person to go in front of a Baptist congregation, truth to tell. I’ve made inroads into the Diocese of Anchorage.”
O’Malley noted how support has been growing in Girdwood and Anchorage. He also said that there has been little if any resistance to building a cemetery.
“Almost 70% of the people in Girdwood voted for it,” O’Malley said. “We’re carrying out the wishes of what people want here, and I think it’s healthy that they see Girdwood as their eternal home. Every small town has a cemetery.” He concluded with a sense of humor, “I don’t know what opposition there would be. We want no death! The end is not near! We’re not dyin’!’”
The Gazette also conducted a phone interview with John Rodda, the Muni’s Director of Parks and Recreation, who is nearly 10 years in the position. Though cemeteries are under HHS management, he has been involved with the discussions since park property is suggested for locating a cemetery. His involvement is giving information, not with decision making or planning.
“The cemetery’s design is entirely up to the Girdwood community, Cemetery Committee and the consultants for what is going to be appropriate for the area,” Rodda said. “Based on community input, final design features and accessibility, all of those questions need to be addressed depending on what the final location turns out to be and the build out plan.”
Rodda pointed out the practical aspects of the proposed cemetery saying, “Lots of people feel pretty strongly about their roots. Girdwood has a long history of families that have been there for quite a long time. We have people who are getting older. We also know that ultimately in the longer term, the cemetery in Anchorage is going to fill, and it already has some restricted plot areas.”
According to Rodda, Chugiak/Eagle River is looking to start the process, which is more complex than Girdwood’s. A Chugiak/Eagle River proposal needs to be presented to and approved by six community councils. A dialogue needs to be started and potential pieces of land need to get reviewed. He said Elkutna will need to decide if it wants to be part of the process.
While acknowledging the process for cemetery approval will take a lot of time, Rodda expressed optimism there eventually will be a positive outcome.
“I give the Girdwood community a lot of credit for pursuing something,” Rodda said. “We’re going to run out of space. I think Chugiak/Eagle River is likely to follow, but they’re well behind what you have done in Girdwood. There has been no active process as far as site selection or sites under consideration. That will take a little bit of time. People are talking about it, but there has been no area-wide push at this point. I think that is going to surface in the near future.”