NAMPA — Since Ryan Lancaster was hired at Kohlerlawn Cemetery in 1990, he’s heard about unused plots that were taking up valuable space.
Thirty-one years later, the cemetery owned by the city of Nampa is seeking to reclaim spots that have been unused for at least 100 years.
The process to do so requires research to contact the people, or more likely their descendants, who have claims to these locations. But Lancaster, the cemetery’s sexton, hopes the project will result in newly available spots.
“The reason for doing this is just to be able to utilize the cemetery space that otherwise would not be used,” Lancaster said.
Following a state law change in 2016, city-owned cemeteries can open burial plots up if they notify previous owners “or his or her heir” and that person agrees to give up them up. With the help of a genealogist, Lancaster sent letters to people who have connections to the unused sites earlier this month. He published legal notices, too.
Eventually, Kohlerlawn’s plan is to reclaim the estimated 549 spots to resell or find a legal heir that ownership can be transferred to.
“Most likely, the families don’t know these spaces are even in the family lineage,” Lancaster said.
Before the 2016 statute, city-owned cemeteries didn’t have as much direction on what was legal when attempting to reclaim unused plots. The statute says cemeteries should conduct a “basic online search for information about the heirs of the deceased owner.”
Spots only need to be unused for at least 50 years in order to be reclaimed by cemeteries, but Kohlerlawn is focusing on spots that haven’t been used in at least 100 years.
Lancaster is following the lead of Canyon Hill Cemetery in Caldwell, which underwent a similar process after the new legislation passed.
Canyon Hill had two rounds of reclaiming unused spots, which opened up about 200 locations, Caldwell City Clerk Debbie Geyer said.
“The whole thing, I think, was very successful,” Geyer said. “It was rewarding in the fact that we were able to locate family members.”
Before 1912, Kohlerlawn only sold group spaces to families, Lancaster said. He picked up on this when he viewed a map of the cemetery and saw the change from exclusively family names to individual names around that point in time.
Oftentimes, Lancaster noticed, only one or two spots had been used within a group of four to six. But they all belonged to the same family. They originally were sold for $3 per spot.
“I’m sure that was quite a bit at that time,” Lancaster said.
The project he’s taking up now could make those unused plots available to be sold for $800 each, or $900 starting March 1.
It’s valuable for the cemetery to reclaim unused spots, Lancaster said, because “we don’t have a lot of access to be able to purchase more area.”
The 45-acre cemetery, which has 18,192 plots and 4,153 unoccupied, recently opened up a new 2-acre section with 1,100 plots.
So far, reactions have been mixed, Lancaster said. Some heirs who have been found have willingly given up the spot because their families have moved elsewhere. Others have wanted to keep the spots or perhaps sell them on their own.
Lancaster said some people transfer ownership after posting on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. They might offer a discount compared to what the cemetery is selling spots for.
To reclaim the unused spots, people have 60 days from when they were notified to send a written response to the city clerk’s office. If there’s a dispute over who is the legal heir, the cemetery won’t be involved, but will check back in 10 years.
The purpose of all this, to Lancaster, isn’t to squeeze people out, but rather just make the unused space more useful.
“With all of our older cemeteries,” Lancaster said, “I think it is an issue.”