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Sherman Says: ‘Empire speak’ defines the role of New York State Cemetery Board

SPRINGVILLE — A meeting of great significance will take place in Albany, this week. Although there is much at stake, this event will not snare the attention of many political stalkers in the Empire State.

The New York State Cemetery Board is scheduled to meet at the department of state offices. Members will discuss “pending legislation and proposed regulations and take action on cemetery applications” at that public meeting. I wish I had known earlier.

It turns out that this board is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of burial grounds for all not-for-profit cemeteries in New York state. It’s kind of a big brother for small plots. Cemeteries that do not fall under its jurisdiction include religious, municipal, private, national and family cemeteries.

The cemetery board is made up of the New York state secretary of state, the New York state attorney general and the New York state commissioner of health.

There are 58 cemeteries and crematories, within Erie County. Most are far from urban locations and the board’s short list of regulations contains some surprising insights into its archaic, rural nature. For example, “While some communities may have local regulations on this matter, there are no state regulations concerning burial on private property. However, the New York state sanitary code does define the distances required between cemeteries and water sources. Anyone wishing to make burial arrangements on private property should check with his or her local government officials.”

Also, “There is no state requirement specifying the depth of a grave, although there may be local regulations that apply. For example, the city of New York requires that, ‘when human remains are buried in the ground without a concrete vault, the top of the coffin or casket shall be at least 3 feet below the level of the ground (2 feet, in the case of a concrete vault).’”

This board has financial and legal responsibilities that far outweigh these macabre instructions and keep this level of bureaucracy in business. Included are legal justification for refusing to bury a body, burial rights obtained through inheritance, the perpetual care fund and the permanent maintenance fund.

The perpetual care fund consists of individual contributions by lot owners. The permanent maintenance fund is fueled by a portion of current lot sale receipts and $35 from every interment.

This Empire State board makes full use of what I would call “empire speak,” or the sterile and stuffy language of Albany bureaucrats.

According to the department of state, “The important distinction between these two funds is that perpetual care funds are used for the care of individual graves, plots, mausoleums or columbarium spaces, while permanent maintenance funds are for cemetery care, overall. Only the interest from these funds can be used for maintenance; the principal must remain intact.”

The board dealt with the repair of approximately 20 “dangerous monuments” in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Oneida, last year. It dispatched a senior investigator to the site, who concurred that each was either loose or tipping over. After the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association tried, in vain, to locate any current owners of the lots in question, the senior investigator approved a repair bill in excess of $7,800. Thus, the state agency made the right decision, but only after methodical precision.

New York is the most populous of the six states that require cemeteries to be operated on a nonprofit basis. It is unclear to me why state government has to have such an extensive investment in burials conducted by not-for-profit cemeteries. It seems that a well-educated board of directors, operating within the framework of the New York State Health Department and subject to local governmental review, could do, just as well. Should Albany have absolute authority over the Goode Cemetery in Akron or the Sibley Cemetery Association in East Concord? It does.

If there is something that needs to be regulated with strict authority, it will flourish in New York state. Just be sure it’s at least 3 feet below the ground.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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