Ky. Voices: Public oversight could secure Lexington Cemetery

A tree with changing leaves stands near the Henry Clay Statue in the Lexington Cemetery. The cemetery relies on sales and income from investments to operate.
A tree with changing leaves stands near the Henry Clay Statue in the Lexington Cemetery. The cemetery relies on sales and income from investments to operate.

In 1960, I was elected to the Lexington Cemetery Company Board of Directors. Now 53 years later, I am extremely concerned for the financial well-being and future of this remarkable community treasure and final resting place for the loved ones of thousands of families.

The Lexington Cemetery is managed by a nine-member board of directors responsible for overseeing the management of the property and the investment portfolio.

At any point five members of the nine-member LCC board can determine the future of the Lexington Cemetery with no accountability to anyone in the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government or the commonwealth of Kentucky.

The noncompensated board of directors is answerable only to itself and to the Internal Revenue Service because of its 501(c)(13) tax-exempt status.

There will be no recourse for the community or for those who have chosen and will choose this cemetery as the final resting place for their loved ones.

Through Aug. 31, 70,164 people have been buried or otherwise memorialized in the Lexington Cemetery since the first burial in 1849.

The independent, non-profit, nonsectarian cemetery derives income from the sale of burial and memorialization opportunities and from its investments to provide the funds needed to manage and operate the 170-acre property.

A share of the sale price of all grave spaces, mausoleum crypts and columbarium niches is placed in the cemetery's perpetual care funds and invested under the supervision of the board.

The cemetery's income from $60 million in investments is needed to supplement the operating income.

But I am concerned that the investment, and thus the future of the cemetery, may not be preserved.

The cemetery's excellent staff provides thoughtful and kind service. Patrons may chose among grave spaces, mausoleum crypts, columbarium niches for urns containing cremated remains, a cremation scattering garden and other choices for memorialization.

But the Lexington Cemetery is much more than a piece of land set aside for burials and memories. It is a community treasure to which everyone is always welcomed.

I do not believe the future of a treasured resource that means so much to our community and to so many families should be left solely to the whims of a nine-member board.

The Lexington Cemetery began in 1849 when Boswell Woods was purchased by 25 public-spirited citizens who each contributed $500 to fund the purchase. Subsequently, those contributions were repaid with interest.

It is important that the cemetery be in a position to continue far into the future with supplemental investment income.

The late John Muir was among the leaders instrumental in the creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.

He was also deeply involved in the preservation of natural resources and wildlife. Muir once said, "Nothing dollarable is safe."

I think that sentiment can also describe the Lexington Cemetery and its $60 million.

Eventually, when the cemetery is sold out of all burial and memorialization opportunities, income from investments will be the sole source of revenue to pay for the cemetery's ever-continuing perpetual care.

I believe some public oversight is required to preserve this valuable community asset. The Lexington Cemetery Board of Directors should revisit its charter and bylaws and provide a new level of accountability and scrutiny by an entity or entities in the public sector.

Didn't the late President John F. Kennedy remind us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step? Let's begin.