Nov. 26 2008 12:00 AM
(Amelia DeVivo/City Pulse)
Mt. Hope Cemetery may be closed — technically, it’s full — but it is far from dead. Construction began Oct. 20 and finished Nov. 7 on the second phase of a $600,000 memorial garden project at the cemetery, which is funded half by the city and half by a wealthy benefactor.

Haven’t heard about it? You’re not alone. Plans call for an area at Mt. Hope Cemetery, called “the basin,” to be developed over the course of 12 phases into a memorial garden complete with a gazebo, walkways, benches, fountains and a garden from which the public could snip flowers to place at loved ones’ graves.

The total cost of the project for the city is expected to be $300,000, with the rest coming from the Charles Fratcher Foundation, funded by a trust set up by a former Lansing resident to benefit cemeteries.

In theory, each year the city would put up $65,000 — from the parks millage —until all the phases are complete. But the specter of budget deficits and shrinking revenue hangs above what will be, by all accounts, a lovely and peaceful garden.

"This (memorial garden) fills a need for the city," Loretta Stanaway, the overseer of Fratcher’s fund, said in an interview last week. Stanaway also owns Memorial Minders, which maintains grave sites in the Lansing area. She also founded The Friends of Lansing’s Historic Cemeteries and has become an advocate for the three city-owned and operated cemeteries.

(Evergreen and North Cemetery are the others.) A few years back, Stanaway was hired by National City Bank to fulfill the will of Fratcher. Stanaway was contacted because, quite simply, grave keeping is her business and Fratcher’s will left money for two grave-keeping projects: one to finance the annual care of his family’s grave sites and a second to pay for annual beautification projects at Mt. Hope Cemetery that city couldn’t afford on its own. Fratcher stipulated the funds be used only for Mt. Hope and not be used to pay for routine maintenance or upkeep.

"Right now there’s nowhere to hold a service in Mt. Hope Cemetery other than at the graveside, no place for the public to hold memorial services and no contemplative place for people to reflect on their loved one’s lives," she said. The project would also bring a columbarium — a structure that houses urns containing cremated remains — to the cemetery. The city could sell the 120 spots in the columbarium for $500 and it could be expanded to fit public demand.

If the city were to pull its matching funds for the project, Mt. Hope would still continue to see as much improvement and beautification as the Fratcher funds would cover, though the memorial garden project would be drawn out "interminably," Stanaway said. "There has definitely been a trend over the years of cutting funding and staffing for city cemeteries," Stanaway said, adding that the Friends were formed in March 2007 in response to proposed city budget talks where the cemeteries were targeted for trimming.

And it looks like that’s exactly what’s about to happen. In an interview Monday, Parks and Recreation Department Director Murdock Jemerson said the department did not recommend matching funds in its fiscal year 2010 budget.

"We can’t just spend all our capital improvement dollars in one place — we need to spread it around," Jemerson added. Jemerson pointed out that his department received Fratcher funds in fiscal year 2007, 2008 and 2009, but only provided matching funds from the parks millage in fiscal year 2007 and 2009. The city is not required to produce matching funds, and the upcoming year will not be the first time the city decided not to match the Fratcher funds.

Stanaway was surprised at the city’s drawdown in funding. "I was disappointed. I understand the logic (Jemerson’s) using, but expressed concern that I didn’t want to establish a precedent,” she said. Steven Peters is a trust officer for National City Bank, which is a trustee of the Fratcher Foundation. He said the scaling down of matching funds by the city means the memorial garden may take a little longer to complete and may have to be reigned in to a less "grandiose" scale.

"It shows good judgment and prudent use of the funds by the city," he said in an interview Monday. "They’re not just taking as much as they can get and then not using the money."