Photo by Lorraine Kennery
A 40-year veteran of cemetery management is fighting to keep White Plains rural cemetery from collapsing by adding a crematorium.
One spring day in early April 1984, Lorraine Kennery was sitting in the middle of her parents’ driveway in Mahopac, sifting through a PennySaver, looking for a job when she spied: “Need help?” a cemetery superintendent; house provided as part of the compensation.
She had recently left a difficult marriage and returned home with her 5 year old son. âWhen I saw the job ad that came with a house, I didn’t care what else I was doing,â she says. âThe most important thing was a roof over our heads. “
Kennery posted her resume that day and was called in for an interview a week later. She was offered the job with a modest salary of $ 7,000 in the first year and started as the superintendent of Oakwood Cemetery in Mount Kisco this weekend.
At Oakwood, Kennery was a one-woman show. She mowed the lawn, sold the plots and dug graves. If the side of the hill was steep or the gravestones were too close together, she would dig graves by hand with a shovel. âI just wanted to make sure I got it right,â Kennery says. “I couldn’t give them an excuse to let me go.” It was 11 years before she took a week off, and it would be a lifetime among the graves.
Twenty-one years later, Kennery had established herself as a seasoned cemetery keeper and accepted a higher paying position as executive director of the 165-year-old White Plains Rural Cemetery. As with Oakwood, the new job came with a house.
Kennery’s trajectory as a caretaker was suddenly called into question when, due to the pandemic, the cemetery quickly began to run out of burial space. âBefore COVID,â Kennery says, âwe planned to have a few more years of graves available. Today, there are less than 100 plots left.
In 2020, the cemetery saw a 111% increase in burials. Meanwhile, funeral directors were turning down families due to the influx of requests and the inability to bury the bodies quickly enough. Many families have chosen to cremate instead of waiting.
For New York’s population of over 19 million, there are only 48 crematoria. A state like Oregon, with 4.2 million inhabitants, has 66. Brendan Boyle, executive director of the New York State Association of Cemeteries, explains that it is extremely difficult to obtain a permit to build a crematorium. , as several agencies are required to approve the application in addition to the strict regulations of the State Cemeteries Division. âIt’s a lot of obstacles to overcome,â he says.
In the United States as a whole, cremations now account for almost 60% of all bodily dispositions. JP Di Troia, president of Fresh Pond Crematory in Queens, the oldest crematorium in the United States, said they had experienced a 30% increase in their typical workload during the pandemic.
Kennery is anxious that the crematorium’s revenues also cover the cost of repairing cracks in the walls that emit little puffs of white plaster as cars and motorcycles pass on the adjacent freeway.
Fortunately, Kennery anticipated the cemetery’s capacity issues and in 2013 started the conversation about building his own crematorium. According to New York State law, once people are buried, they have the right to remain buried in perpetuity. In the same year, at a special meeting of the cemetery board of directors, the crematorium was approved.
But it wasn’t that easy to get permission from the town of White Plains. In 2014, the cemetery submitted a permit application to the city’s zoning council. After two years of processing, the zoning council rejected the cemetery’s permit application, saying a crematorium “would change the essential character of the neighborhood.” Not to be discouraged, the cemetery took the case to the New York State Supreme Court.
There were three public hearings on the crematorium, and many White Plains residents went out to oppose it. Some feared that the value of their home would drop. Others worried about air pollution. In White Plains Rural Cemetery Assn. v City of White Plains (2019), the court voted in favor of the WPRC, saying it would be âarbitrary and capriciousâ for the city of White Plains to prevent the cemetery from building a crematorium.
Getting permission to start building the crematorium is an ongoing struggle due to a shortage of some materials, drastic increases in costs for others (eg, steel), and delays from the city. The result is that a construction schedule has not yet been determined. âEverything is rolling on this crematorium,â she said. “It’s life or death for the cemetery.”
As the industry evolves around it, Kennery may consider rural White Plains ownership once the crematorium is operational. It will be run with a full-time crematorium operator and a new part-time office manager. âI’ll be there to ease the transition to the next person when I retire in 2024,â Kennery says. “I have invested a lot emotionally in this place.”
As Kennery sits at his dining table, an off-white lace tablecloth coming out of his clasped hands, it’s obvious how much energy and care she has put into her house. Kennery is anxious that the crematorium’s revenues also cover the cost of repairing cracks in the walls that emit little puffs of white plaster as cars and motorcycles pass on the adjacent freeway. âNot for me,â she explains of the repairs. “I am just one person.”
Kennery, as always, looks to the future when ownership passes into the next competent hands. She hopes whoever replaces her as the graveyard steward will love and care for her, as she has for over two decades.