Allegheny Cemetery creates trail for cremated burials

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It's a common belief that people choose cremation so their ashes can be scattered. But many urns wind up in basements, attics and garages. They were dear to the people who brought them home, but a detached great-nephew decades from now might be the one who decides what to do with them.

David Michener, president and CEO of Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville, said cremated remains account for 21 percent of the burials there compared with 47 percent of the memorial services at a funeral home the cemetery co-owns with Homewood Cemetery -- Rapp Funeral Home in Penn Hills.

"There's a large gap of remains not making it to the cemetery," he said. The challenge "is to get people to offer a resting place that can be honored generationally."

Three weeks ago, Allegheny Cemetery opened a trail through 800 feet of hillside woods with eastern vistas. It's a way for the cemetery to drum up business while also providing families a final resting place for their loved ones that's as grounded as traditional burials.

"One reason we built the trail was to give families every option possible," he said.

The memorial trail was in the works for two years, and the entire cemetery staff got involved.

"Everyone went out and came back with ideas," he said. "We picked the one that was highly visible and aesthetically beautiful, with vistas."

Daniel Olesinski, the maintenance supervisor, developed the trail along a path that had been used by maintenance vehicles as a cut-through from one road to another. It was overgrown with invasive plants. Mr. Michener saw the opportunity to "spruce up that space" and put it to better use.

The overgrowth was removed, the road was graded into a gravel pathway surrounded by new trees and landscaped areas. The path connects with the main road that leads from Butler Street to Penn Avenue. It has two overlooks and a patio with an altar for committal services.

"We have 200 spaces laid out so far," Mr. Olesinski said. "There's room for another 200."

Two spaces have been sold so far. Six more are pending payment.

The 300-acre cemetery offers other options for cremated remains, including a columbarium made of granite, with shelves and slots for urns. The trail suggests that, like any traditional burial, cremated remains can have a respectful final resting place that can be visited in perpetuity, Mr. Michener said.

"Cremation dates to the late 1900s but has been increasingly popular over the last 30 years," he said.

Several factors explain why. At $3,000, it's about half the cost of a traditional burial. Cremation also gives families more flexibility since an urn can be buried long after a memorial service.

The fact that Americans have been more mobile in the past 40 years means that "families aren't inherent to one place anymore," Mr. Michener said.

Most cemeteries have facilities for cremated remains, whether in columbariums or in special gardens devoted to them. Homewood Cemetery in Squirrel Hill has a cremation garden and an indoor mausoleum. Union Dale Cemetery on the North Side has a cremation garden and a columbarium.

"Thirty to 35 percent of our business is cremations," said Ron Deiger, senior vice president at Union Dale. He said a plan similar to Allegheny Cemetery's trail "has occurred to us. It's not something we have developed yet. We actually do not have a lot of wooded area."

Joggers, walkers and a fair number of deer have used the new trail in Allegheny Cemetery, and officials from other cemeteries have visited it.

"We don't think there is another space like this," Mr. Michener said. "A trail with an ascending viewpoint mimics what Pittsburgh is about. The pathways were developed so that you can't see the end of it, and that dynamic encompasses the spiritual" ideal of everlasting life.

In the end, he said, a burial is a burial.

"We want to offer a memorial decision that the next generation doesn't want to have to make."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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