By Thomas P. Healy
As part of its national Urban Initiative to improve access to cemeteries in densely populated areas, and in recognition of a growing veteran preference for cremation burial options, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA) in September 2015 acquired a 14.75-acre wooded site on the grounds of Crown Hill for $810,000 in order to establish a columbarium, a facility for storage of cremated remains. [PDF]
According to Jessica Schiefer, a public affairs officer with the NCA in Washington, D.C., “The VA believes the Crown Hill site is ideal to offer dignified inurnments for veterans, active duty service members, their spouses, and other eligible family members in the Indianapolis region.” She said plans for the development include a gated stonewall entrance along 42nd Street, a public information center with restrooms, one committal service shelter, a memorial wall and plaza, a U.S. flagpole, and a Prisoner of War plaza area.
The first phase will feature a 10-year capacity of 2,500 columbarium urn niches, Schiefer said. Masterplan Phases 2 through 10 will eventually develop a 100-year or more capacity of 25,000 niches. Schiefer said the Phase 1 development will require removal of some trees for cemetery features on 7.5 acres, approximately half of the site. “This will accommodate cremation inurnments for around 30 years. That means 50 percent of the site will remain untouched for the next 30 years.” She noted that the entire western side of the L-shaped site along 42nd Street is being left completely undisturbed for the next 50 years.
READ MORE: State Forester doesn’t think the site qualifies as old-growth forest
Portions of the adjacent wooded area of 62.75 acres along 42nd Street and Michigan Road were considered for development in 2006 but that proposal failed. Though it is platted for future burial sites, that section will remain wooded. An effort by the Central Indiana Land Trust to acquire both parcels in 2006 failed to find sufficient financial backing. [PDF]
In a letter dated September 29, Glenn Powers, NCA deputy under secretary for field programs, wrote, “We are now carefully planning cemetery development and have partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the project’s design, which includes retention of wetland areas, maintaining a woodland buffer around areas of planned development, and preserving mature trees. We will also plant approximately 200 new trees, ensuring future generations enjoy trees when they visit their loved ones.”
SERVICE TO VETERANS
Crown Hill Cemetery was established in 1863, in part as a place for reinterment of Union soldiers originally buried in the city’s overcrowded Greenlawn Cemetery near downtown. Section 10, where Civil War veterans are buried, was recognized in 1999 as a National Cemetery, one of 135 sites designated by the NCA. More than 2,000 veterans have their final resting place there.
Keith Norwalk, president of Crown Hill Cemetery and the Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, said the new project is a continuation of a long partnership with the VA. “The mission of Crown Hill Cemetery is to provide services to the community, and for groups such as the veterans community,” he said recently. “That’s one reason the VA looked to Crown Hill—our quality of service to the veterans community.” In addition to the National Cemetery on the south grounds, Norwalk said the cemetery has three other significant veterans sections.
Some observers have asserted that the 14.75-acre site will be clear-cut of old-growth trees 30″or more in diameter. Norwalk rejects that idea. “Some of the larger trees are being permanently retained on site,” he said, adding, “It’s hard for some people to understand that these aged trees are going to be a feature.”
READ MORE: Indiana Forest Alliance wants alternative sites considered
The landscape of Crown Hill has always been an essential element of the cemetery’s character, he said. “We are one of 10 historic cemeteries in the country that represent the Rural Cemetery Movement,” he said. The movement began in 1831 with the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston. As 19th-century urban areas grew, the tradition of burying corpses in churchyards created a public health problem, so pastoral locations outside of the inner cities were transformed into landscaped necropolises. The public was encouraged to leave the hot, noisy, dusty cities and picnic or walk the suburban grounds. Some historians suggest such cemeteries were the precursors of America’s public parks.
Norwalk said a master planning effort is under way. Crown Hill has retained the services of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf. “As part of that, one of the things we’ve done is beautify the cemetery with new trees. We are responsible in managing our landscape and treescape.” He said 100 trees will be planted this autumn and another 100 next year. “We’re repopulating the treescape due to loss from Emerald Ash Borer and natural attrition.” Groundskeeping is a significant portion of the cemetery’s annual $2 million maintenance budget, according to Norwalk.
Part of long-term planning is adding future capacity, he said. “Our mission is to provide for the cemetery needs of our community and of the families of Crown Hill. That’s first and foremost.” During recent public meetings, opponents of the new site asked why a cleared site adjacent to the VA’s 14.75-acre parcel at the southwest corner of Clarendon Road and 42nd Street wasn’t offered to the VA. “If you drive by that 50-acre area, you will see that we have the infrastructure already laid out for future in-ground burials,” Norwalk said. “We’re always planning for the future.”