A Hagerman couple who says God has given them a mission have received authorization from the county to use some of their property for a nonprofit cemetery.
Audrey and Leo Whitten were given permission to use up to a half-acre of their 15-acre property on Jicarilla Road for burials, which they said they will offer free of charge to those in need.
“We just really believe that, with things being the way they are with the economy, there are a lot of people who don’t have the money for burial expenses, whether that’s a funeral home or a plot,” Audrey Whitten said.
The Chaves County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to approve their request for a special-use permit for Broken Hill Cemetery.
The county Planning and Zoning Commission previously reviewed the couple’s application and recommended its approval, given certain conditions, which the Board of Commissioners upheld.
Those conditions include that burials be reserved to the south side of a slope on their land to block the views from neighboring properties and that the county review the permit in two years or after 10 burials, whichever comes first.
A neighbor, Joe Steed, submitted a written objection and appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission Nov. 7 to voice his concerns. But, according to Chaves County Planning and Zoning Director Marlin Johnson, Steed indicated that he was satisfied by the conditions placed on the permit and the assurances given during the meeting. Steed could not be reached for comment by press time.
The Whittens have responded to some of Steed’s concerns by saying that they have taken measures to keep the property secure and that they will not only keep burials on the south side of the slope, but will add trees and a fence to block the view in the future as they are able to do so. Johnson told commissioners that the required review of the permit will help to ensure that the site does not become a problem for neighbors.
So far, the Whittens have used the hill for the remains of four family members who were cremated, including the husband’s first wife, who passed away in 2011.
Since then, they have installed three large crosses engraved with Biblical passages, and they consecrated the site in 2014.
Audrey Whitten said her husband, whom she marred in December 2011, was the one who felt guided by God, the real owner of their land, in their viewpoint.
“He said, ‘We have a mission from God.’ I said, ‘OK, when do we start?’ I didn’t ask questions. … When you get a mission from God, you don’t ask.”
The couple said they will provide or arrange for the labor required for burials, and Audrey Whitten said she is willing to engrave headstones as she has done for family members.
She also said they are also willing to do “green” burials and have looked into regulations regarding them. She defined green burials as those done within 24 hours of death. Such burials do not require embalming. Green burials also can be defined as those occurring in natural landscapes and those that involve only biodegradable materials.
While the crosses on the property will be maintained by the Crosses Across America organization after the Whittens’ deaths, according to the couple, they told commissioners that they have made no plans at this point regarding what happens to the cemetery once they are gone. Audrey Whitten explained that her thoughts were that the site could return to a natural landscape if no one else takes up their caretaking duties.
That concerned one expert in the industry associated with the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
General Counsel Robert Fells said that burial sites that serve the public are intended to be maintained in perpetuity and that such cemeteries usually have permanent maintenance funds to ensure the continual upkeep of the cemetery.
With Broken Hill Cemetery, Chaves County has three cemeteries where the public can be interred. The other two are South Park Cemetery on Southeast Main Street, which is owned and operated by the city, and Memory Lawn Memorial Park on East 19th Street, which is in receivership and in negotiations to be purchased.
Charitable cemeteries are few in number, said Fells, because most people turn to local government indigent funds if they don’t have the money to pay for a plot or cremation. Chaves County does have some indigent funds, which require that people prove the need for the assistance.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.