New Jersey-based real estate developer Ed Bixby never expected to get into the cemetery business. But when he and his mother were visiting his infant brother’s grave at Steelmantown Cemetery in Upper Township, New Jersey, they were horrified by the state of the grounds. Bixby told the owner he wanted the cemetery cleaned up, or he would buy it. The owner sold him Steelmantown for a dollar in 2007. Fourteen years later, Bixby is a cemeterian who owns four historic cemeteries and is president of the Green Burial Council.

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wicker casket prepared to be lowered into ground

The problem with historic cemeteries is they’re expensive to maintain while often bringing in little or no profit. When they become unkempt, they’re neighborhood eyesores and offensive to people whose loved ones are buried there. Bixby has been able to use his developer’s eye to improve the grounds and raise community awareness of cemeteries as local green spaces that the living can also use. He also figures out how to maximize space within his cemeteries so they can continue serving people’s interment needs for many years to come. As populations grow and urban spaces become tighter, figuring out how to make the most of existing cemeteries is an important lesson in reducing and reusing.

Related: World’s first “living coffin” made of mycelium is used in a burial

Bixby now owns Steelmantown, two cemeteries in California and one in Oregon. Inhabitat talked to him about his latest acquisition, Historic Columbian Cemetery in Portland.

welcome entry sign for Historic Columbian Cemetery in Portland, Oregon

Acquiring a Portland cemetery

Like many cemeteries, Historic Columbian started out as a family burial ground outside the city. But Portland long ago overtook it, and now 18-wheelers roll over it on the I-5 overpass.

Originally, the cemetery belonged to the Love family. But since 1857, it’s served the community. The cemetery had lots of ups and downs in upkeep and reputation over the years. Somewhere around 2000, a nonprofit group formed and took over cemetery care from a nonresident owner. They fixed the problems: overgrown grass and shrubs, vandalized stones, disordered burial records. But by 2017, the group was running out of energy.

“They had a lot of good intentions,” Bixby said. “But they couldn’t really be successful at what they were doing. The only way a cemetery survives is to produce income to take care of itself. And they really weren’t selling any plots. They really had no money to maintain it.” The group looked for somebody to take the cemetery off their hands, but local municipal and religious organizations weren’t interested.

A mutual friend introduced Bixby to the nonprofit group. He saw great potential in the cemetery, especially for natural burial. “That’s fairly popular in Oregon and there’s several locations. But there was really no one doing it in an urban setting. And when my friend contacted me about Columbian, it is in Portland proper, and we would be able to offer something at a reasonable cost to the citizens there within the city limits itself. So that’s what made us interested in it.” He also appreciated the cemetery’s rich history, with occupants including pioneer families that traveled the Oregon Trail, a freed enslaved person who became a minister and many other interesting people.

In June of 2018, the nonprofit group voted to transfer the cemetery to Bixby. He acquired Historic Columbian for the cost of drawing up the paperwork.

gazebo and gravestones in a cemetery

Vision for a green community space

Bixby and his wife, Helena, immediately oversaw a massive cleanup of the grounds. Once they felt the cemetery was presentable, they reintroduced it to the community with a fall festival. “It was not about the cemetery itself,” Bixby said. “It was about the community.” About 40 vendors set up booths along the road through the cemetery.

“The community actually rediscovered the cemetery itself. And now the community understands it’s there and to be used. And people come there every day, and that’s a good thing. They’re there to not only visit their loved ones, but maybe walk the dog.” Future possible plans for the cemetery include butterfly gardens and a mural of Oregon history painted on the wall of a warehouse adjacent to the property.

untreated wood coffin prepared to be lowered into ground

Natural burials and use of space

Historic cemeteries often face incomplete records and confusion about which graves are filled or have even been sold. Sometimes officials prematurely deem cemeteries full, which immediately renders them unprofitable and a drain on the owner’s financial resources.

Bixby’s real estate and development experience has been very helpful in figuring out how to efficiently use the space. The nonprofit group that ran Historic Columbian before Bixby took over thought they had about 250 plots left. The way he sees it, there are at least 1,000 plots for ground burial, including 200 in the green garden. “And then of course with cremation, the sky’s the limit,” he said. The cemetery has room for thousands of one-by-one cremation spaces for direct earth cremains burial. “There’s every bit of 100 years of life left in it or more. Which is good for the community.”

Historic Columbian is what’s known in the green burial world as a hybrid model. People can opt for a traditional burial with embalming, coffin, headstone and concrete vault. Or they can take the eco-friendly route of a hand-dug grave, wicker casket or simple shroud in the green burial section. Here, graves are marked with natural fieldstones. The Bixbys restored the cemetery’s original wrought iron fence to frame the natural burial ground.

So far, the cemetery has had about a half-dozen natural burials. Bixby said, “We’ve reengaged the community, so now community members are coming back and buying plots.”

+ Historic Columbian Cemetery

Images of Steelmantown Natural Cemetery via Green Burial Council; images of Historic Columbian Cemetery via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat