Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Mike Case Smith digs a grave with a backhoe in Oak Harbor’s Maple Leaf Cemetery this week.

Normally obscure cemetery district race ‘a chance to talk about it’

Even with the help of heavy equipment, digging a grave in a cemetery isn’t a simple matter.

Michael Dougliss, caretaker for Oak Harbor’s Maple Leaf Cemetery, explained that the ground has to be probed to find the edges of gravesites, sometimes with unexpected results. Boulders and roots can complicate matters. Edges have to be squared by hand. Concrete liners have to fit perfectly.

“There’s all kinds of little tricks,” Dougliss said. “You don’t just get on a backhoe and start digging.”

Running a cemetery district isn’t a simple thing either, especially at a time when many people are moving away from traditional burial in favor of cremation and other methods of dealing with the dead.

The two people running for a seat on the cemetery district understand this; they also understand that making adjustments and changing with the times and the culture is vital. From an updated website to more columbariums to hold ashes, those changes are already happening.

Heidi Beck was appointed to the district a year ago after a commissioner resigned. She’s lived on the island for about six and a half years and works for the state Health Care Authority.

Bryan Stucky has been a funeral director at Wallin’s Funeral Home & Cremation, which is next door to the cemetery, for about a year and a half. Stucky made it perhaps the most visible cemetery district race in recent history by dotting the city with campaign signs. He said he’s trying to raise the profile of the position.

“People don’t think about cemetery districts,” he said. “This gives me a chance to talk to people about it.”

Beck said she won’t post signs but is relying on word of mouth. She has the endorsements of the two other cemetery commissioners, Mark Forbes and Lee Koetje.

The commissioners say they are concerned Stucky may have a conflict of interest since the funeral home competes with the cemetery district in the sales of headstones and vaults, which they said are less expensive through the district.

Stucky doesn’t see a conflict but said he will recuse himself from discussions about those items. He sees his knowledge of the funeral business, including rules and regulations, as an advantage in that position.

Maple Leaf Cemetery opened in 1904 after John Izett donated 10 acres. It was owned and managed by the Modern Woodmen of America until 1930, when ownership was transferred to a cemetery association. Island County took over in 1956 and the cemetery district was formed in 1960. The cemetery has about 7,000 graves and room for 200 more years of burials.

As a junior taxing district, the cemetery district receives about $24,000 a year from property taxes. Dougliss said the district is the only entity he knows of that has never asked the public for a tax increase.

The commissioners have no plans to ever ask. The district’s total annual budget is about $100,000. It earns revenue from funerals, though Koetje said the commissioners try to keep prices as low as possible.

“The overall cost of burials and funerals has really skyrocketed nationally,” he said.

Cremations have become more popular on the East and West coasts, according to Koetje. Washington state has the second highest rate of cremations in the nation.

In response, the district purchased two new columbariums and created a scattering garden.

The commissioners also purchased uniforms for the two staff members, a new backhoe, a new granite sign and had the website updated with a plot search function; Beck is in charge of updating it. At Stucky’s suggestion, they purchased a new casket lowering device because the old one makes a loud squeaking noise.

Beck said she also worked to create formal policies and procedures, including an employee handbook.

Stucky said there are additional changes he feels would help the cemetery stay relevant and out of the red. He said the cemetery could offer green burials, which he said are becoming more popular. Selling flowers could also be a moneymaker, he said, and the website could be further improved.

“Fewer and fewer people are using the cemetery,” he said. “We need to think of alternative reasons for people to go there.”

Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Mike Case Smith digs a grave with a backhoe at Maple Leaf Cemetery this week.

Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Mike Case Smith digs a grave with a backhoe at Maple Leaf Cemetery this week.

Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Mike Case Smith digs a grave with a backhoe at Maple Leaf Cemetery this week.

Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times Mike Case Smith digs a grave with a backhoe at Maple Leaf Cemetery this week.

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