Amherst Cemetery Lot Inventory and Time Remaining

I spent some time at the Department of Public Works here in Amherst looking at the remaining lots (unsold) in Meadowview Cemetery.  I wanted to be able to make a calculation of how many years of usage are remaining at Meadowview as a double check on what the Cemetery Trustees have said.  It turns out that we have the capacity for 661 burials left at Meadowview Cemetery.  Here’s the breakdown:

Lot Type Number of Lots Burial Capacity
Single Lots: 66 66
Double Lots: 225 450
Triple Lots: 27 81
Quadruple Lots: 16 64
  Total Capacity: 661

To answer the question of how many years until the cemetery is full, we have to consider a few things – how many burials we make per year, and how many of those burials require a new lot.  This is because people can purchase lots today for usage in the future, and those lots make up the majority of the ones used for burials. So let’s go back over our burial rate in Amherst cemeteries.  Over the last 80 years, the average burial rate is 22/year, plus or minus 6.  We have seen this here before.  Remember that the current year’s number is not for the full year.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

And we have numbers for lot sales, though unfortunately not for the same range of years.  To make this simpler, we will just look at the percentage of burials using previously purchased (perpetual care) lots here.  The most recent number is around 60%.  The details on where these come from is here.

Percentage of Amherst cemetery burials using previously held (perpetual care) lots.

Percentage of Amherst cemetery burials using previously held (perpetual care) lots.

So now we have what we need to know.  Let’s do the “most likely” analysis using the 80 year average burial rate (22/year) and the 60% number for perpetual care lot usage from the graph above.  That means 40% of the burials require new lots taken away from the 661 we have today.  So how long will it take until Meadowview is full?  Answer: 75 years.

Current Lot Inventory: 661
Burials/year: 22
Percentage using newly purchased lots: 40
New Lot Purchases/year: 8.8
Previously Sold Lot Usages/year: 13.2
Time to exhaust inventory (years): 75.1

Let’s take a “worse case” scenario and use the 28/year burial rate (22+6) and the same new/perpetual care split.  How many years are left at Meadowview then?  Answer:  59 years.

Current Lot Inventory: 661
Burials/year: 28
Percentage using newly purchased lots: 40
New Lot Purchases/year: 11.2
Previously Sold Lot Usages/year: 16.8
Time to exhaust inventory (years): 59.0

Obviously these hold so long as past trends continue into the future.  Who knows if or when our increase in population may eventually start to show in our burial rates.  But notice that it hasn’t for 80 years.  And we have no idea how many perpetual care lots are left to be used, because no one really keeps track of that specifically.  So let’s take this one step further and imagine there are no perpetual care lots left to use, and we use our statistical high rate of 28 burials/year rate, all of which take up a previously unsold lot.  This would be our “worst case” scenario.  How long then?  Answer:  23 years.

Current Lot Inventory: 661
Burials/year: 28
Percentage using newly purchased lots: 100
New Lot Purchases/year: 28
Previously Sold Lot Usages/year: 0
Time to exhaust inventory (years): 23.6
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Death and Burial Trends in Amherst

When it comes to understanding how we use our cemeteries in Amherst, something was still missing in my mind after going through the population growth in town, the annual burial numbers in our cemeteries, and also the cemetery lot sales numbers. To quickly review, since 1934, on average, we have a flat average of just 22 burials per year (+/- 6) in Amherst, NH cemeteries (see below).  The lot sales numbers indicate that we sell on average less than 8 cemetery lots per year (between 1971-2008), indicating that most of the burials are in lots that have been previously purchased (perpetual care lots).

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records. The red line shows the average value of 22.

This is rather surprising in light of the town’s population growth in that time. As per the US Census, we have gone from about 1000 people in Amherst to over 11,000 in that amount of time (see below).  So the conundrum is that even though there are 11 times more of us here now than there were 8 decades ago, the number interred in our cemeteries each year hasn’t changed.  At all.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the numbers are all real.  Something to ponder while we press on.

One missing piece of this puzzle is the number of Amherst residents who die every year. Now you might guess that the number of residents who die and the number of people who are buried here would be basically the same.  This would make sense, but this would be wrong.  The number of resident deaths in Amherst is tabulated and reported every year in the annual town reports, which are available in the town library’s archive room, and that is where I obtained the numbers (graphed below). These are still remarkably small numbers, though they do show a slow growth trend, tripling in 8 decades.

Amherst Resident Deaths from 1934 to 2012, as recorded in Annual Town Reports.

Amherst Resident Deaths from 1934 to 2012, as recorded in Annual Town Reports. The blue line shows the running average.

So here is the conundrum now, since 1934 the population of Amherst has increased by a factor of 11, the number of annual resident deaths have gone up by a factor of 3, and despite those increases, the burial rate has not changed.

There’s a twist to this story, we just haven’t seen it yet.  It is difficult to plot resident deaths the same graph with the burial numbers for comparison, but we do need to compare them. So instead let’s look the ratio of burials to deaths.  This will be a much more useful graph.  Plotted here (see below) is our annual Amherst cemetery burials as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths each year. There is something quite surprising going on, do you see it?

Burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths.  These numbers are skewed by the "Brought from away and buried in Amherst" burials.

Burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries as a percentage of Amherst resident deaths. The unlikely percentages are caused by the “brought from away and buried in Amherst” burials.

It turns out that it has been quite common for people to be “brought from away and buried in Amherst.” In some years those numbers have exceeded the numbers of Amherst residents who died. When that happens, we get some statistically very unlikely burial percentages, which you see above.  Now why people would be brought in for burial is a question for the historians.  But up until ten years ago or so, these “brought from away” numbers were in the town reports.  Whether or not this is still going on is an unanswered question at this point, and we have no information on the number “sent away” for burial.

One thing that is readily discernible here is that the percentage of dead which are buried is decreasing.  Let’s assume for a moment that the number of “brought from away” burials is currently the same as those who are sent away.  If this is true, the 2012 numbers show that about 50% of our residents who die are not buried.  Now if the number “brought from away” is greater than those sent away, as it must have been for many years, this fraction of residents not buried increases.  So what happens to the 50%+ who aren’t buried?

The answer, I believe, is cremation, an increasingly popular alternative to burial in this part of the country.  That explanation is consistent with the numbers that are reported here, and also with funeral homes reports in the area, which report that more than 60% are choosing cremation over burial.  The numbers from Amherst here are somewhat muddied by the fact that the head of DPW tells me that cremated remains are sometimes buried, requiring a lot and being recorded as a burial, so cremation rates in town are greater than what would be suggested here by burial numbers alone.

Now I think we have a reasonably complete picture of how we use our cemeteries in Amherst.  A useful thing to know for planning purposes would be the numbers of unsold and perpetual care (sold but unused) lots currently in town cemeteries.  We could use these, along with what we know from historic numbers, to forecast the number of years left before new cemetery space is required.

Amherst Cemetery Lot Sales

There is one significant aspect of our town cemeteries that has managed to evade the conversation. Burial lots can be purchased at the time of need prior to a funeral, or they can be purchased in advance. These are known as “perpetual care” lots, and it is not uncommon for people or families to make these purchases, sometimes in quantity, for the future.

We have already looked at the usage of cemetery lots in town by examining the annual interment data and finding a relatively constant average 22 burials/year over many decades.  But what we have not looked at is how quickly new lots are being purchased.  That is, how quickly are we purchasing the unsold lots in our existing Amherst cemeteries, and how quickly are we using up those which were already purchased?  Understanding these numbers lets us understand the demands our town places on our cemetery land reserves.

This is a relatively straightforward question to answer, at least during a span of time over which we can get numbers. The fine people at our Department of Public Works have been very patient and most helpful with my requests for information. As it turns out, one of the annual reporting duties of the DPW is to notify the NH Attorney General’s office of the sale of cemetery lots (the AG’s office oversees cemetery trusts), so this information is already tabulated on an annual basis. Unfortunately there are some years (1982-1991) for which the numbers can’t be readily located in town records (these records used to be maintained in other places and they would seem to have either been lost/misplaced or were perhaps never recorded). I may request copies of these reports from the AG’s office, but I digress. What data I have now will suffice.

The graph below plots burials in Amherst cemeteries (in blue) during the years for which I was able to obtain lot purchase data (1971-2008), and also the lot sales data (in red). Note the 1982-1991 lapse in red points on the graph – the missing record years. It is, I think, reasonable to assume the trend bridging the gap here. In any case, the sale of new lots is a surprisingly small number, with the average over more than three decades being 7.6 cemetery lots sold per year.

Amherst cemetery burials and lot sales from 1971-2008.

Amherst cemetery burials and lot sales from 1971-2008.

If you are the sort of person who sees value in histograms, we can view it that way too.  If you aren’t used to histograms, what this shows is a count of how many times each number shows up in each set.  In other words, how many years there were sales or usage of a given number of burial lots.  You can see that there were six years where six lots were sold (red), and also six years where 20 lots were used (blue) and each set peaks very close to its average lots/year value (7.6 for lots sold, 22 for burials). This is just another illustration of the separation between the number of lots used and sold each year.

Histogram view of the burial lots used and sold for the years 1971-2008.

Histogram view of the burial lots used and sold for the years 1971-2008.

These data give us some insight into how our cemeteries are used. It is quite clear from the above graphs that more burials are performed than there are sales of new lots each year. We have no good way of knowing if the lot purchases were made for immediate use, or if the lots were bought to be held in perpetual care. But let us assume they were purchased for immediate use.  Now the difference between two data sets establishes the lower limit to the number of previously sold (perpetual care) lots used for burial each year. This is graphed below.

Usage of previously purchased cemetery lots in Amherst, 1971-2008

Usage of previously purchased (perpetual care) cemetery lots in Amherst, 1971-2008 (lower limit).

This is useful because it can be used to calculate the lower bound on the percentage of burials in Amherst which draw from the previously sold, or perpetual care, lots, as plotted below.  The average value is 68.3%.

Percentage of Amherst cemetery burials using previously held (perpetual care) lots.

Percentage of Amherst cemetery burials using previously held (perpetual care) lots.  Note that this is a lower bound because we are assuming that lot sales go to immediate burials and not to perpetual care.

What these data indicate is that an average of at least 68% of burials in Amherst each year are performed using perpetual care lots (i.e. lots which were not purchased in the burial year). The lot sales numbers from DPW indicate that 7.6 new Amherst cemetery lots are sold on average each year, which is the actual demand for new cemetery land in Amherst.  As the town’s population surpasses 12,000 today, I will admit to being rather surprised by this.

The obvious followup question here is how many unsold plots remain in our existing cemeteries?  This is one which can only be answered by the DPW.  The other question is what is the difference between the number of deaths in town each year and the burial numbers.  Understanding this would help us to interpret what we see here.

Amherst Cemetery Usage

With the cemeteries in Amherst making headlines in local news, I thought it was appropriate to obtain some numbers on the historic demand for the town’s cemetery land. The actual number of burials per year are only one facet of the issue, though. The other big aspect, which has not been a part of public discussion as I am aware of it, is the sale of burial plots. I am also working on those data in order to provide a more complete picture of our resource demands. That will have to wait, though. (Note:  Now complete.)

The town’s Department of Public Works has been very helpful with providing access to the town’s burial records (for which I am most appreciative), which go back to 1934 and are graphed below. These data conclude with the current year’s burial numbers, which, this being May, should be understood to be incomplete.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

Annual number of burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries. Data from Department of Public Works records.

This graph nicely shows the fluctuations in the annual interment rates, and indicates that the data set is well represented by its mean value (red line). In order to make some other comparisons, however, we can determine the average number of burials per year, averaged over a decade, and replot. The graph below shows the average number of burials per year in the decade preceding the data point. So the 20.5 value in 1950 is the average number of burials from 1940-1949, and so on. The trend was clearly upward for the 2000-2010 decade, though it has fallen back to an average of 25 since 2010, as the graph above illustrates (not counting this year for obvious reasons).

Annualized mean burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries.

Annualized mean burials in Amherst, NH cemeteries.

In a previous post on the town’s population growth, the US Census was the primary source of data. There, the information is on the decade years and showed Amherst’s considerable growth. I have replotted these Amherst population data below, restricting the graph to just the years for which I have burial data. In the 60 years shown here, the population of the town increased from 1461 to 11,201 (by count of the US Census department).

US Census population data for Amherst during the burial data years.

US Census population data for Amherst during the burial data years.

The remarkable thing about this is that with the 766% increase in population of the town (2010 vs. 1950), the interment rate has remained largely flat. In other words, a shrinking percentage of the town’s population is being interred over this time, as shown graphically below. This should not be confused with our absolute burial space demand, which is clearly demonstrated by the first graph in this post.

Percentage of the population of Amherst buried, averaged for each decade.

Percentage of the population of Amherst buried, averaged for each decade.

This is a very surprising result. And probably not attributable to longevity, although life expectancy numbers in the US have increased (see below). I have no numbers on cremation or private cemetery usage, but those are likely possible factors in play.

Historic life expectancy in the United States.

Historic life expectancy in the United States.

What the population and interment numbers do tell us is that there are more of us in town every year, but a relatively fixed number of us are buried here annually.