The Runners-up American Cemetery Excellence
Earlier this year, American Cemetery asked readers to nominate candidates for its third annual American Cemetery Excellence Award. Not only did we receive nominations from every region of the country, but international nominations as well. While no two cemeteries were alike, they did all share a common philosophy: Make a difference in the lives of the families they serve and the communities they call home.
Without question, our 2013 nominees for the American Cemetery Excellence Award are all deserving of recognition. Each of the nearly two dozen nominees is a place where lives are commemorated, deaths are recorded and families are reunited. Each is also a place of tranquility and reflection, playing an integral role within the local community and serving as a vital social, historical and environmental resource.
We were inspired by the thoughtful and passionate words written by employees, owners and members of boards of directors about their cemeteries. Our three runners-up stood out not only for their performance, professionalism and innovation, but their ability to look to the past to see the future.
Constantly looking for new ways to improve operations day-to-day and long term, combined with an ability to maintain a consistently high level of service and commitment to their families and communities, make each a winner.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery
For many years, Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Center Moriches, N.Y., was considered just a nice, old small-town cemetery.
But when Steve Scerri took the reins as superintendent in 1987, he came up with a plan – and a vision. Today, the cemetery has been transformed for the 21st century – and beyond.
"I just wanted to make a difference," Scerri said. "Mount Pleasant is a gem…and I just wanted everyone to see and understand that."
Among Scerri's first order of business was a thorough cleaning of the grounds, including removing debris, leaves and weeds; pruning trees and shrubs; realigning, cleaning and repairing stones; adding topsoil to sunken graves; and more. From there he went on to computerize all burial, financial and business records. He introduced himself (and reintroduced the cemetery) to area funeral directors as well as taking out ads in local newspapers and church bulletins.
About a decade ago, a crematory was added to the cemetery grounds, as was a columbarium. The crematory generated enough money to build a new workshop, allowing the staff to turn the old workshop into a beautiful chapel.
During Scerri's tenure, roads have been resurfaced, trees planted, a new sign erected at the entry gates, a welcoming gazebo and meditation garden added and a new state-of-the-art camera system installed. The goal, Scerri said, has always been to have a first-rate cemetery for families.
The hard work of Scerri and his staff has paid off: In 1987 the cemetery had about $350,000 in cash; today there is $2.7 million in the bank. And when Scerri couldn't find a product to remove cremated remains from a cremator as completely and thoroughly as he would like, Scerri invented a new tool, Clean Sweep, which will be sold worldwide in the near future.
"A job well done is gratifying," Scerri said, "knowing that we are honoring the lives of all who are buried in the cemetery as well as continuing to serve our community by providing a beautiful cemetery with all the services needed."
While getting the cemetery's financial and maintenance houses in order was a priority, it was also important for Mount Pleasant – and its staff – to be more active in the community as well. The cemetery works closely with several local groups, including New Beginnings Community Center for Brain Injury Rehabilitation and the Independent Group Home Living Programs. Cemetery staff members have also lent their time, talent and equipment to help with repairs at the Wading River Cemetery in Wading River, N.Y., and the Historic Havens Homestead in Center Moriches. "If you're in a community, you need to be a part of the community," Scerri said. "I believe that is our obligation."
The obligation that Scerri speaks of was evident in October 1996 when the cemetery unveiled a 6-foot-high, 500-pound obelisk in tribute to the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800, which exploded off the Moriches coast July 17, 1996. “It was just something we had to do," explained Scerri. "For the victims' families, this was the closest land spot to where the plane went down."
It was a letter sent from then New York State Association of Cemeteries president Neal S. Barlin that really put a cemetery’s role into perspective, Scerri said. "Too often the only time a cemetery rates media coverage is when there is vandalism or when a problem occurs, and the public is left with a negative image," the letter, dated Oct. 30, 1996, said. "Those of us involved in this work know the truth – that every day people in grief are helped to a healing process by the care and memorialization of their beloved."
"That’s what it's all about," Scerri said, "and that's what we will continue to do at Mount Pleasant."