CITY HALL — A 112-year-old cemetery where more than 60,000 Santa Monica residents have been laid to rest could soon be open to outsiders.
City officials plan to change an old ordinance that limits interment at Woodlawn Cemetery to only current residents or former Santa Monicans who lived in the city for at least five years, making it the only known municipality in the state with such a restriction.
The recommendation by Woodlawn staff came at the City Council meeting on Tuesday during a presentation about a new business plan aimed at making the cemetery financially sustainable, listing measures that include increasing the number of available burial spaces and raising the contribution amount for each sold plot toward the care and maintenance of the mausoleum and burial grounds.
While the council greenlighted its staff to draft the revision, some expressed reservations about opening up a cemetery that has long been reserved for residents.
Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was among the concerned, suggested that advertising could help boost interest in the cemetery among residents, many of whom do not know that Woodlawn even exists.
“Maybe we can get it out in the community that Woodlawn does have space,” he said.
The residency requirement currently only applies to burials, not for cremations.
“This is in no way precluding Santa Monica residents from being buried there,” Cemetery Administrator Virgil County said during an interview on Thursday. “But for the full success of the plan, we think it might be prudent to look at relaxing that (restriction).”
He suggested that residents could perhaps receive a discount.
The business plan has been in the works for the past year, designed to keep the cemetery running efficiently over the next three decades through steps that include the creation of 12,000 new spaces, the construction of a crematorium and a new sustainable operation that will keep Woodlawn from relying on general fund subsidies.
Woodlawn currently runs on a budget of about $1.6 million a year, approximately $300,000 of which comes from the general fund. The contribution from that fund is expected to increase to more than $1 million annually once the cemetery inventory is completely depleted, which could happen by the end of this year if no new spaces are created.
Only 60 graves are still available for sale and just a handful remain for the crypts and niches, which are spaces in the mausoleum for caskets and cremated remains, respectively.
Woodlawn staff also faces the challenge of keeping the endowment care funds up with maintenance costs. The cemetery and mausoleum endowment care funds currently sit at about $6.5 million and County estimates that they will need to be increased to at least $24 million to sustain operations once all sales have ceased.
The plan suggests that the contribution amount toward the endowment care fund be increased from the current rate of 15 percent of sales from each space to 25 percent.
County said that the plan will include a new marketing and advertising component to raise public awareness of the cemetery.
“The cemetery has never actively been involved in advertising and you would be surprised by how many people don’t even know the cemetery even exists,” County said at the meeting.
He is also suggesting that a fee study be conducted to set a new price for plots at Woodlawn, bringing it in line with other municipal cemeteries in the area.
Councilwoman Gleam Davis said that up until recently, she did not know that Woodlawn even had spaces available.
“There is a certain portion of the community that think they can’t get into Woodlawn,” she said.
Much of the anticipated 12,000 new spaces will most likely be reserved for cremation, following an increasing trend shifting away from traditional casket burials.
Approximately 40 percent of the interred at Woodlawn were cremated, a figure that is expected to rise to 60 to 70 percent in just 10 years. It’s a growing trend driven by economics, County said, pointing out that cremations cost about 50 percent less than a traditional casket burial, which altogether could run around $6,000 to $8,000.
The cemetery has seen a 10 percent increase in cremations this year alone.
“A lot of people don’t feel comfortable buying a casket,” County said. “They feel it’s a waste of space.”
The new spaces will be spread out over four phases of the plan, each of which will span about seven years. The first phase will include the creation of more than 2,300 spaces, all but 300 of which will be for cremation.
The plan also calls for the creation of a crematorium, a facility that was located at the cemetery up until the 1970s when it was dismantled because its technology was considered outdated and didn’t comply with air quality standards.
County said the crematorium, which is where the bodies are cremated, will most likely be placed at the current site of the cemetery maintenance facility, which is located near 14th Street. The new facility will be constructed during the third or fourth phase of the plan.
The crematorium is expected to be a source of revenue for the cemetery long after the last interment space is sold. There are no such facilities in the entire coastal area, County said.
“The technology with crematoriums has advanced considerably,” County said. “They’re very environmentally friendly and they emit no visible emissions and odors or anything like that.
“They’re very compatible with the surrounding area and a lot of times you wouldn’t even know there is one next to you.”