A task force of the V.I. Public Works Department has launched a program to digitally record all burials in the territory, combining that record with the Geographic Positioning System as part of a vast vision to transform the U.S. Virgin Islands public cemeteries.
Shelton Shulterbrandt, director of the Public Works Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program, told the Senate Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging that the task force was created to undertake the challenges the cemeteries pose.
“Right now, we are manually recording all the burials and we want to move into the 21st century with this,” Shulterbrandt said at the committee’s Monday hearing. To achieve this “we are looking at digitally documenting all the burials.”
This task alone has been challenging, Shulterbrandt said, because many of the older records have been “aged to the point that some of our records are not in the best condition.” The Historic Preservation Commission has been assisting in having public cemeteries documents converted from hard copy to digital record.
A GPS of all public graves is also being undertaken.
“If someone would like to be able to find a plot or burial spot of one of their loved ones, they can go online or have an app to be able to locate where they are buried,” Shulterbrandt said. All the records of burial plots are to be scanned, Shulterbrandt said. “Once complete it will be available for the public to view.”
In addition to the modernization of the public cemeteries, Shulterbrandt said the department is also aware of the structural improvements needed.
“We need to have the facilities upgraded so we can have bathroom facilities, places for the public to congregate within the cemeteries … We need to have the walls and gates addressed because they have been damaged. We are looking at also getting a lot of the cemetery itself aesthetically pleasing through beautification projects,” Shulterbrandt said.
Funds will be necessary to achieve the department’s vision. The department, which collects fees for burial plot permits and tomb construction, has raised their rates since Sept. 1 “to improve the maintenance of the cemetery.”
Originally, Shulterbrandt said the fees were around $16 to $32 for 20 years but have been raised to $250 for a weekday burial and $500 for a weekend burial.
The original fees were “a very small figure,” Shulterbrandt said. They didn’t allow the department enough funds to properly maintain the cemeteries.
“We had seen this as an issue because there are very few opportunities to do major improvements to the cemeteries if for 20 years we are only able to get around $32 for each plot to maintain it,” Shulterbrandt said.
Other jurisdictions charge fees far greater than the V.I.’s new fees. In New York, Shulterbrandt said, the fee for a burial plot is $5,000, while in several other states it is several thousand to purchase burial plots.
“Our vision is a small step towards getting more monies for us to be able to maintain these cemeteries properly,” Shulterbrandt said.
Sen. Myron Jackson, chairman of the committee, said the department’s vision sounded “very promising.”
“I trust that it will be achieved. it is long overdue,” Jackson said.
Sens. Jackson, Dwayne DeGraff, Javan James Sr., Steven Payne Sr. and Athneil Thomas were present for the hearing.