They’ve taken down the “no vacancy” sign at Tempe’s Double Butte Cemetery. Tempe residents who have lamented for the past 14 years that they couldn’t buy a place to be buried in their own community now have a chance — while the burial plots last.
The “land office” reopened Thursday, and executive cemetery assistant Cynthia Yanez sold $34,000 worth of plots the first day.
They are the first burial spaces sold at the cemetery since 1994, when all spaces sold out at the 41.4-acre cemetery that dates to 1888.
But public demand led the city to develop new spaces on the far north and southeast sides of the cemetery. Those two areas will accommodate up to 1,708 more caskets.
One area is a grassy site along Broadway Road named Sunrise, and the other is desert terrain abutting Tempe Butte named Sunset.
A memorial garden next to the new desert spaces has received a face-lift, and Yanez sold 15 spots for cremated remains the first day.
A majestic arch was recently erected at the entrance to the cemetery, 2201 W. Broadway Road.
Brad and Shari Olsen of Tempe were among the first to buy one of the new burial spaces.
“I hope I won’t be using it for a few years, but you never know,” said Brad Olsen, 58, who has taught biology at McClintock and Marcos de Niza high schools for 30 years.
“I realized there was no room here at Tempe Double Butte, so I was kind of disappointed, but we were very happy when they opened new spots,” he said Friday while walking through the cemetery with his three grandchildren.
“I am a longtime Tempe resident, so I thought I needed to be here,” he said.
Former Tempe Councilman Joe Spracale called the changes “a long time coming.”
“We didn’t have any place where anybody could actually be buried,” said Spracale, who recently completed six years on the Double Butte Cemetery Advisory Commission. “We were sending them off to Scottsdale and Mesa and Chandler and everywhere else. But we finally got a place where people who lived, worked and played in the community can actually die in this community.”
Bordered by Interstate 10, Broadway Road, the buttes and an industrial park along 48th Street, the cemetery has been both privately and publicly owned several times. It was once called “Tempe’s Arlington” by former Tempe resident and Arizona Gov. J. Howard Pyle because of all the pioneers and civic leaders buried there.
The cemetery was developed from land donated by Tempe pioneer Niels Petersen in 1888 and operated for seven decades by the private Tempe Cemetery Association.
It was turned over to the city for management in 1958. But in 1998, Tempe decided to turn the cemetery over to a private management firm run by Gil Szajna.
“The guy actually had a super plan, but the trouble was he tried to do it all by himself,” Spracale said. “He didn’t have the money or manpower to do the things he wanted to do” and “upset old-timers in the community” by making changes to the cemetery, including cutting down trees.
Spracale said longtime Tempe residents felt he was destroying the atmosphere of the cemetery. So in 2000, the city took back management of the cemetery.
The City Council created the cemetery advisory commission and developed a master plan for the two burial areas.
Through an agreement with the Arizona Department of Transportation, an abandoned road along the northern rim of the cemetery was taken, graded and sodded for the Sunrise section. Each space there costs $3,600 and can hold two caskets, one above the other, in what are called “companion plots.”
Grave markers must lie flat so lawn mowers can pass over them. Sunrise has 514 spaces in two sections, divided by a parking lot and the future site of a visitor center.
The desert area, or Sunset section, was created by excavation and hauling in fill dirt, Yanez said.
“Most of that land was hard as rock” to begin with, she said. Each space sells for $1,800 for a single casket, and traditional above-ground gravestones are permitted.
There are 680 spaces in that area, which is higher in elevation than the rest of the cemetery with views north to Camelback Mountain and South Mountain.
On her first day, Yanez said she sold eight plots in the desert area and two in the grassy section. “It’s a little bit slower in the Sunset section,” she said.
Councilman Ben Arredondo said he is pleased how the cemetery has rebounded from private management problems of upkeep and a lack of watering of grass areas and shrubs.
“We had to take it over,” he said. “The private company was not doing it.”
The only other cemetery in Tempe is the county-owned Twin Buttes Cemetery nearby, a “pauper cemetery” where the poor and indigent have been buried since 1951.
“That has filled up, and they no longer bury there anymore,” Yanez said.