Wrangell’s cemeteries are running out of space

This hand-tinted photograph shows Wrangell's cemetery circa 1930.
This hand-tinted photograph shows a cemetery in Wrangell circa 1930. (Photo by H.A. Ives/Courtesy Alaska State Library, ASL-P345-006)

Wrangell is about the last place anyone would consider crowded — unless you’re no longer among the living. In that case, the town has just about run out of room for you. Wrangell is coping with a shortage of burial space for residents who’d like to remain in the community after death.

In Wrangell, there’s no mortuary. The deceased are sent to Ketchikan for embalming and cremation. Caskets are purchased from a funeral home or retailer off the island.

So pastors like Kem Haggard of Wrangell’s Harbor Light Church don’t just provide the religious services, he often walks families through the final arrangements as well.

“I love our small community, but it really does provide some challenges, especially at a time when we’re all grieving,” he said.

Haggard and the families do manage it — they have to. But those final arrangements now have an added challenge: The city is running out of burial plots. Haggard is aware of this, and it’s why he encourages cremation. But he wouldn’t want any family to have to go against the final wishes of a parent or spouse, if they preferred their body be intact.

“We don’t want to put additional burdens on the family. They’re already dealing with the loss, not on top of, ‘OK we’re going to have to change those wishes of someone we love,’ that can be really difficult,” Haggard said.

There are only five burial plots remaining in Wrangell’s two city-owned cemeteries, according to City Clerk Kim Lane. Once they’re gone, the alternatives are not looking promising.

At Sunset Gardens Cemetery, there’s extra land for up to a dozen plots. But Lane said the land can’t be excavated. Areas have large roots that would be difficult to dig through.

Then there is the older Memorial Cemetery. The city acquired the cemetery in the 1940s, but folks were buried there long before that. When the city went looking for more grave space there, it wound up in an awkward situation.

“When the crew in the past had gone to dig a plot, there were some times when they would find the plots are occupied,” Lane said.

She said plenty of burials don’t have markers in that cemetery. Wooden crosses could have very well deteriorated over the years with no one to replace them.

“So there are quite a few plots that are marked unknown because there was no marker or headstone there before the city took it over,” Lane said.

The city continues to discuss developing other land parcels for more space. The former Wrangell Institute property is at the top of its list, but nothing has been decided on.

Cremation is becoming more common and could ease pressure on Wrangell’s few remaining burial plots. Lane said the last body burial was one year ago. But since the start of the year, seven urns of ashes have already been placed in plots or in the niches of the columbarium, leaving 22 niches available for purchase. Anticipating a shortage there, the city recently bought another columbarium for $50,000. That structure should be available for interment this spring.

While city officials are hopeful that these new facilities will accommodate everyone who wants to remain eternally in this tiny island town, a final answer to Wrangell’s burial problem remains to be seen.

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