On a spring day in early April 1984, Lorraine Kennery sat in the middle of her parents’ driveway in Mahopac, sifting through a PennySaver, looking for a job when she spied: “Cemetery superintendent needed; house provided as part of compensation.”
She had recently left a difficult marriage and moved back home with her 5-year-old son. “When I saw the advertisement for a job that came with a house, I didn’t care what else I was doing,” she says. “The most important thing was a roof over our heads.”
Kennery mailed in her résumé that day and was called in for an interview a week later. She was offered the job with a modest salary of $7,000 her first year, and started as the superintendent of Mount Kisco’s Oakwood Cemetery that weekend.
At Oakwood, Kennery was a one-woman show. She mowed the lawn, sold the plots, and dug the graves. If the hillside was steep or the headstones were too close together, she dug graves by hand with a shovel. “I just wanted to make sure I did it right,” says Kennery. “I couldn’t give them an excuse to let me go.” It was 11 years before she took a week off, and it would be a lifetime among the graves.
Twenty-one years later, Kennery had established herself as an experienced cemetery caretaker and took a higher-paying job as the general manager of the 165-year-old White Plains Rural Cemetery. As with Oakwood, the new job came with a house.
Kennery’s trajectory as a caretaker was challenged suddenly when, due to the pandemic, the cemetery started to quickly run out of burial space. “Before COVID,” says Kennery, “we were planning on having a few more years of available graves.” Now, fewer than 100 plots remain.
In 2020, the cemetery experienced a 111% increase in burials. Meanwhile, funeral directors were turning families away due to the influx in demand and inability to bury the bodies fast enough. Many families chose to cremate instead of waiting.
For New York’s population of more than 19 million people, there are only 48 crematories. A state like Oregon, with 4.2 million people, has 66. Brendan Boyle, executive director of the New York State Association of Cemeteries, explains that it is extremely difficult to obtain a permit to build a crematory, as several agencies are required to approve the request on top of stringent regulations from the State Division of Cemeteries. “It’s a lot of hoops to jump through,” he says.
In the United States as a whole, cremations now account for almost 60% of all body dispositions. J.P. Di Troia, president of Fresh Pond Crematory in Queens, America’s oldest crematory, says that they experienced a 30% increase in their typical workload during the pandemic.
Kennery is eager for the income from the crematory to also cover the cost of fixing the cracks in the walls that emit small puffs of white plaster when cars and motorcycles hum past on the adjacent highway.
Fortunately, Kennery foresaw the cemetery’s capacity concerns and in 2013 got the conversation going about building their own crematorium. According to New York State law, once people are buried, they have the right to remain so in perpetuity. That same year, at a special meeting of the cemetery’s board, the crematorium was approved.
But it was not so easy to get permission from the City of White Plains. In 2014, the cemetery submitted a permit request to the city’s zoning board. After two years of processing, the zoning board denied the cemetery’s permit request, saying that a crematorium would “alter the essential character of the neighborhood.” Not to be deterred, the cemetery took the matter to the New York State Supreme Court.
There were three public hearings about the crematorium, and many White Plains residents went to object to it. Some feared that their home values would decline. Others worried about air pollution. In White Plains Rural Cemetery Assn. v City of White Plains (2019), the court passed in favor of WPRC, saying that it would be “arbitrary and capricious” for the City of White Plains to stop the cemetery from building a crematorium.
Gaining permission to start building the crematorium is an ongoing struggle due to a shortage of some materials, radically increased costs for others (e.g., steel), and delays from the city. The result is that a construction timeline has yet to be determined. “Everything is riding on this crematory,” she says. “It is life or death for the cemetery.”
As the industry changes around her, Kennery can envision the White Plains Rural property once the crematorium is operational. It will be bustling with a full-time crematory operator and a new part-time office manager. “I’ll be around to ease the transition to the next person when I retire in 2024,” says Kennery. “I have a lot emotionally invested in this place.”
As Kennery sits at her dining-room table, an off-white lace tablecloth peeking out from under her folded hands, it is obvious how much energy and care she has put into her home. Kennery is eager for the income from the crematory to also cover the cost of fixing the cracks in the walls that emit small puffs of white plaster when cars and motorcycles hum past on the adjacent highway. “Not for me,” she explains of the repairs. “I’m just one person.”
Kennery, as always, is looking toward the future when the property passes into the next pair of capable hands. She hopes that whoever takes her place as the steward of the cemetery will love and nurture it, as she has done for more than two decades.