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.

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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.

Historic Population and Growth of Amherst and Neighboring Towns

The town of Amherst, NH has had much growth in the past few decades.  Some insight into that growth can be found by digging through town records as published in our annual Town Reports (available in the Reference Room in the town library).  Page 80 of the town report for the year 2000 provides data on the town’s annual population, as taken by Selectmen’s census, since 1960 and is shown here.  I find it interesting that we had only 2000 people in town in 1960.  These are very informative data, but are somewhat limited in value because in their short time scale.

Amherst, NH population as recorded in annual town reports.

Amherst, NH population as recorded in annual town reports.

The US Census records the decennial population, something they’ve been doing since 1790, which is plotted below for Amherst from 1910 until the most recent one in 2010.  Take note that the US Census data and the Selectmen’s Census from above do not generally agree in their absolute numbers, though they do follow the same trends during the years they overlap.  These US Census data, while they does not contain the fine level of detail that the Selectmen’s Census does, paint a much broader picture of the history and growth of the town and are useful for that analysis.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

US Census data for the town of Amherst, NH.

From is information, we can consider how and when our population has changed significantly.  For this, we will examine the percentage of change of the population of town from the previous decennial census (graph appears below).  These values paint a remarkable picture of the town’s growth.  The 1960 and 1970 decades (1970 and 1980 census values) show enormous growth in the town.  Between 1960 and 1970, the town’s population more than doubled (from 2061 to 4605).  And from 1970 to 1980 it almost doubled again (4605 to 8243).  After 1980, the growth rate plummeted and has remained relatively low.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, NH from its previous decennial US Census.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, NH from its previous decennial US Census.

To understand if this trend was broad or simply localized to Amherst, we can look at the same historic data for nearby towns.  The US Census populations of Bedford and Hollis are plotted together below with the Amherst data from above.  Note the large similar large population growths at approximately the same times.

US Census data for the towns of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis, NH.

US Census data for the towns of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis, NH.

We can also calculate the percent change for Bedford and Hollis and plot those data with our Amherst data from above.  The absolute values vary somewhat, but the data for the three towns all have in common several decades of large growth which peaked around the 1970 time period.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis NH from their respective previous decennial US Census.

The percentage change in the population of Amherst, Bedford, and Hollis NH from their respective previous decennial US Census.

From these combined charts, we can conclude that the rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s was not localized to just Amherst.  Amherst and its neighboring towns experienced a population boom in the decades following the “baby boom” (1946-1964).