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Water is flowing again at Highland Cemetery in Great Falls

Water is flowing again at Highland Cemetery in Great Falls
Highland Cemetery during "dry" period
Posted at 12:36 PM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-11 11:19:09-04

GREAT FALLS — Highland Cemetery (website) in Great Falls went through a rough period in recent months, as trouble getting water to the cemetery led to brown, patchy grass in many areas. Now, however, the water is flowing again.

In September of 2020, the pump that feeds water to keep the cemetery looking green and well-maintained stopped working.

“A few people suggested we should’ve hauled some water in,” said Chris McVeda, director of the Great Falls Cemetery Association.

Until recently when work to get water flowing again was completed, the cemetery had only been trucking in enough water for people to water flowers on graves.

“I would say overall people were pretty understanding with it. Along with understanding, people get pretty tense about it. I’m sure there were tears cried over it,” said McVeda.

He explained, “At first, our motor went out on the pump. We got in to do that and found out the pump also needed a bunch of maintenance done on it.”

The pump base also had to be replaced and the pipes coming in and out of the pump house were found to have moved.

“We had some company look at moving it, moving the piping, but it wasn’t something that seemed like a good option so we opted to put in some flex pipes,” McVeda said.

Highland Cemetery during "dry" period
Highland Cemetery during "dry" period

The final cost of all the work was still unknown Wednesday but was expected to be between $20,000 and $30,000.

The cemetery association has funding, but covering the cost still isn’t easy.

“By law, cemetery associations such as this, we have to put aside 15 percent of the sale of every grave plot or cremation that goes into a trust fund called a perpetual care and improvement fund. That has a balance today of around $700,000. We can take a certain percentage of that each year to help with the maintenance. It’s not nearly enough to do the maintenance,” explained John Stephenson-Love, a trustee of the Great Falls Cemetery Association.

Not an easy problem to fix, but for cemetery association members, it’s money worth spending. “I’m going to be out here, too. I want to make sure there’s water on my grave,” Stephenson-Love said, laughing.

The cemetery association is a 501 C 13 organization, meaning that any donations to the organization are tax-deductible. Contact the association at 406-454-371 or at 2010 33rd Avenue South.

The Great Falls Cemetery Assocation shared the following information:

We, the trustees of the Great Falls Cemetery Association, are glad to report that the water service at Highland Cemetery has been restored. We appreciate the many expressions of concern that we have received over the lack of water, recognizing the pain it has brought to families of interred loved ones. Thank you for your patience.

Since 1911, the cemetery has irrigated from the Missouri River through nearly 2 miles of pipeline. In 1971, a new pump and pipe line were installed, with the pump house placed between Lower River Road and the BNSF railroad tracks. Over time, the pump wore out and finally its motor failed. As the motor was being replaced, it was found that the aging pump itself needed to be rebuilt. While that work was nearing completion, multiple other major issues were discovered, involving the pump base, shifted pipelines, etc. It has cascaded into a much longer and more complicated project than anticipated. We applaud a great team of Cemetery staff and multiple professionals (machinists, engineer, welders, etc) who have spent hundreds of hours designing and implementing solutions.

For example, the intake pipe has been anchored to pilings to prevent shifting. Sections of "flex pipe" have been installed on both sides of the pump house to absorb shock and pressure from the railroad and Lower River Road. The cost of these repairs is in the many thousands of dollars. However, we should now have a much sturdier and more efficient water system than in recent years, leading to a much greener future ahead of us.

Keeping the water running is but one of the challenges the Cemetery has faced. Changes in burial customs have impacted Cemetery revenues. Whereas people customarily have been buried in full-size coffins, cremations or spreading of ashes are now becoming the norm.

To adjust for and accommodate these shifts, we have made several changes:
  • We have been expanding our columbarium area. Two new large columbariums are part of a planned columbarium "park". Each niche can hold two cremation urns, while the traditional grave plots can accommodate three urns.
  • To memorialize and honor those whose ashes are spread in a special place, we plan to install a memory wall on which people can inscribe tributes to their loved ones (similar to tribute walls for military veterans).
  • We are selling portions of excess, unneeded, land in order to build up our capital reserves. This will generate income for perpetual care and allow the cemetery budget to cash flow.
  • We have created a new Executive Director position. This position gives the Director the responsibilities of balancing the operating budget and making larger maintenance decisions, both of which should lend to a positive future for the Cemetery. Chris McVeda filled that position about a year ago. He has multiple years of experience with cemetery management, irrigation, repairs, and equipment. In addition, Chris Reiquam, a former board member, stepped down from the board to work " hands-on" at the cemetery, overseeing repairs, improving efficiency and even digging graves. The work of these two individuals has been invaluable in helping the cemetery meet these many challenges.

We are very optimistic about our future. We are committed to seeing Highland Cemetery continue as the most beautiful and bountiful cemetery in North Central Montana.

Thank you, again, for your support and concern.
The Great Falls Cemetery Association trustees: Charlie Abernathy, Brad Barringer, Brad Nimmick, Doug Ormseth, Amber Stenson, John Stephenson-Love, Suzie Taleff, Jim Weber, Randy Williams