Designing and plotting a modern cemetery

By Joe Harris
Director of Catholic Cemeteries

KANSAS CITY — The tremendous heat and lack of rain during this past summer forced most of us to think about our yards, trees, and plantings, and the interactive role they play with our house and our community.

Although I did not have to mow or weed to any extent, I was ever mindful that every plant or tree needed a certain amount of water and care to survive. Most of my attention was to newer, less developed trees, as these represented a financial commitment. I noticed articles in the paper regarding farm losses due to the heat and drought. Throughout the Kansas City area we see evidence of extreme conditions.

Imagine your yard multiplied by a factor of 150 or more. Most modern cemeteries are about 60 acres of platted grounds. A modern cemetery, to me, means any cemetery designed after 1948, including Mt. Olivet in Kansas City, which opened that year. With the experiences of older cemeteries — St. Mary’s Cemetery, founded in 1873 at 23rd Street and Cleveland, Kansas City, and Mt. Olivet Cemetery founded in 1893 on Lover’s Lane in St. Joseph — acting as guides, we have come a long way in the planning and developing of a cemetery.

From its inception, the Legacy Memorial Garden at Mt. Olivet and Resurrection cemeteries in Kansas City is the culmination of hundreds of years of cemetery design, aided by modern survey and architectural science, artists and granite vendors, and good old fashioned manual labor. The planning behind opening a new section in a cemetery becomes more obvious when compared to planning what you will plant in your own yard. It truly is all about planning.

Very early in the development of the Legacy Garden, we began a partnership with the two largest independent Catholic Funeral Homes in the Kansas City area, Passantino Brothers and Muehlebach funeral homes, as to what families ask for with respect to their own burial decisions. We then partnered with Johnson Granite Supply, a local granite design and supply company, as to the type of feature that would set this area apart from other gardens. These meetings led to a focus group comprised of veterans to give us ideas of what they would like and not like to see in this new garden. Our most experienced grounds staff and experts from local nurseries determined the species of trees to plant and where to plant them. Lastly, we met with a landscape architect, a surveyor and an engineer who drew up plans to show what this garden would look like on paper.

Measurements of the area were taken, topographical studies followed, and finally we looked at a piece of paper measuring 8 1/2” x 11” which represented an area 270’ x 320’! After everyone was satisfied that we were on the right track, we began laying out graves in a grid-like fashion of 16 graves centered on a permanent survey marker. The survey team, made up of professional surveyors using GPS tracking systems that are accurate to 0.0001 of an inch, placed steel rods at intervals of 26’ 8” from North to South and 18’ 0” from East to West. Each of these rods was assigned a number that will become a “Lot Number.”

Using the drawing showing the Lot Numbers, our ground staff began making concrete cylinders with the Lot Number impressed in the concrete. Each cylinder is impressed with the letters, “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D,” the section numbers. The final step is to mount the concrete cylinder directly onto the steel rod. Thus, a garden such as Legacy Memorial Garden is designed and platted.

If you have purchased a grave in one of our newer cemeteries, your contract may say something like “Legacy Memorial Garden”, Lot 127, Section B, Space 1.” This unique address for your particular grave is readily found from the survey map, or from the actual concrete cylinder which is called a “Lot Button.”

Trees were planted at the time the new garden was surveyed. These trees are given a unique grave location, which is then taken out of inventory so that no person may purchase that particular grave in the future. Working with nursery experts, we assign 2-4 graves for each tree when they are planted so that they will have adequate room and not encroach on anyone’s grave, or be damaged when a grave is dug near them in the future.

The area set aside for a Permanent Feature is taken out of inventory before sales are made to insure that there is enough space for concrete walkways and a Permanent Memorial that symbolizes the significance of the garden. A Flag Retirement Ceremony was held in the Legacy Memorial Garden of both Mt. Olivet and Resurrection cemeteries this past July. As part of the ceremony, worn and tattered American Flags were burned in a designated grave that will be the site for what we hope will become an annual event for the community we serve.

Although all trees were planted at the proper times for this garden, and the wonderful Spring weather got them off to a great start, during the summer we relied on hundreds of feet of hose and thousands of gallons of water to keep them alive.

In designing a new garden, we look at what this tree or that plant will look like in 20, 40 or 60 years. Most of us, as homeowners, don’t plan for that long of a time frame. I cannot imagine the ideas that went into planning St. Mary’s in 1873, but I marvel at how well organized and thought out the layout and landscaping is. Almost 140 years after its founding, graves in St. Mary’s are still laid out in geometric patterns with precise measurements. If it works, don’t try to fix it!


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph