Sunset Gardens Cemetery, with the borough’s columbarium visible on the right-hand side.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell Island’s two cemeteries are nearly at capacity, and the community is looking for solutions. 

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About a mile down Zimovia Highway, the older of Wrangell’s two cemeteries is almost full. Graves dating back to the 1800s spill out of the trees onto the manicured lawn between Heritage Harbor and City Park. 

On paper, there are four spaces for full-casket burials in Memorial Cemetery. But borough officials have previously run into issues with seemingly vacant plots at Memorial Cemetery actually being taken, as wooden grave markers rotted away over the years. 

At Wrangell’s other, newer cemetery, about half a mile further down the highway, there are only three plots available.

Space on the ground in the two cemeteries is pretty thin, so how does the borough plan to solve space issues in the short term? Building up. 

Earlier this month, Wrangell’s assembly agreed to spend $57,739 to purchase and install a new structure to hold cremated remains and new memorial plaques – called a columbarium. As of earlier this month, there were only 17 spots left in Wrangell’s sole columbarium, and no space for memorial plaques. 

The new 10,000-pound structure will be located at the Sunset Gardens Cemetery and will have 100 new cubby-like spots for cremated remains and 96 new spots for memorial plaques. 

Assembly member Bob Dalrymple has lived in Wrangell for more than a decade, and said the expansion has been a long time coming.  

“I think it has been discussed since I moved to town,” Dalrymple said, “So it’s really good to see a pretty creative solution there, at least to get us through our current crunch.”

It’s part of the first phase of a larger cemetery expansion in Wrangell. At its April 12 meeting, the assembly also approved moving forward with expanding the Sunset Gardens Cemetery’s plots for casket burials. 

Under that plan, 10 new burial plots will be added to the southwest corner of the cemetery. And 40 new plots will be added into what is now the parking lot. 

Public Works director Tom Wetor told the assembly that this first-phase expansion will help tide the community over as it looks into more complicated cemetery expansion possibilities. 

“Phase Two would involve going back into the woods and would require a lot more permitting,” Wetor said, “But we could get another 50 spots going back up into the woods. It might require probably a little bit of a terraced approach to how it would be put in.”

Wrangell’s borough clerk says in the last year, there have been two or three full-casket burials in the community’s cemeteries. Wetor says that some past years had seen as many as 15 full-casket burials within a year. 

Wetor says that it’s important to keep thinking ahead and not lose steam on expanding the cemetery after this first-phase expansion.

“If we did have, God forbid, a bad year and lots of people pass away, we don’t want to be in the same position five or 10 years from now – out of space,” Wetor told the assembly. “We’ve got to be forward-thinking to consider Phase Two with enough time for the ground and everything to settle appropriately to be able to put caskets in the ground.”

As cemetery expansion gets underway and the new columbarium is set up, borough clerk Kim Lane said that limiting spot reservations will also be an important part of ensuring the longevity of Wrangell’s burial grounds. 

“We’ve seen in the past that somebody would reserve 12 – I’ve seen somebody reserve 16 spots, and they still have several available and they don’t want to relinquish them,” Lane said, “So I think if we control how many [spots] we let people reserve, I think that we can have a better handle on this.”

At the borough assembly’s next meeting, scheduled for April 26, Lane said she would be bringing a resolution to limit the number of possible spots that can be reserved in the cemetery expansion or columbarium to two per person. The assembly will also consider moving graveyard rates and fees out of local code and into a new municipal rates and fees schedule. 

Get in touch with KSTK at or (907) 874-2345.