Orange County’s public cemeteries are nearly out of space for burials, forcing county leaders to freeze purchasing of any new burial plots until after someone has died.
Officials acknowledge they might run out of space in their cemeteries in the next couple years.
Staff at the county Cemetery District say they have a plan to expand their existing cemeteries and build the county’s first new cemetery since 1896 at Gypsum Canyon, right next to the planned state veterans cemetery off the 91 Freeway.
Tim Deutsch, general manager of the cemetery district, said that even with current plans to expand the existing cemeteries they’ll likely run out of space in 2026 if the new cemetery isn’t open by then.
And they aren’t shy about speaking up about the harsh realities increasingly confronting families looking for burial plots.
“I want that to be known,” Deutsch said in an interview with Voice of OC.
“There is this immediate need for the cemetery,” he continued. “We’re not just asking because we want to be another land owner and operate a cemetery, it’s so we can accommodate residents after 2026 realistically.”
Both the Anaheim and Santa Ana cemeteries managed by the cemetery district are already closed for burials, and ran out of space years ago.
El Toro Memorial Park, the one cemetery that’s still accepting new burials, only has room for 640 more caskets as of the end of September according to Deutsch’s report to the board earlier this month.
That’s down from 3,650 spots just two years earlier.
“We’re running out of inventory,” said Cynthia Ward, a well known community activist in Anaheim, who is an appointed member of the cemetery district’s board of trustees, in an interview with Voice of OC. “It’s been a huge problem.”
In addition to the public cemeteries, there are four Catholic cemeteries and nine private cemeteries in Orange County, along with various cremation gardens like Chapman University that don’t offer burials, according to the cemetery district.
Many of the county’s public cemetery plots filled up after county residents purchased plots during the COVID-19 pandemic, preparing for any eventual need of a cemetery.
A few months back in July, the board of trustees put a freeze on buying any burial sites in advance, meaning residents are now required to present a death certificate to prove that they’re eligible to buy a new plot for their loved ones and they can’t plan ahead.
“As long as they were a resident of Orange County, you can buy a lot,” Ward said. “We are no longer doing the pre-need where you can buy eight at a time for your entire family.”
According to the September report, current sales will fill up the cemetery at a rate of 25-30 burials a month, giving the cemetery a maximum of two years before it’s full.
For the past five years, the county has buried over 720 people every year according to data from Deutsch, with an average cost of around $6,100 for each service.
Deutsch added that they work to make sure their cemeteries are the cheapest in the county.
“We want to make sure we’re the most affordable,” Deutsch said. “We as a public entity are charging for the cost of that service. There isn’t a profit margin like private cemeteries put into their costs.”
Gypsum Canyon to Host Next Public Cemetery
The county’s plan for a new cemetery that would end the availability issue for the near future is at Gypsum Canyon, on a plot of county owned land in Anaheim Hills that could be the county’s primary cemetery over the next 80 years.
While around 100 acres has already been promised to the state’s veteran cemetery, the county cemetery district is working on building an 80 acre public cemetery that would sit right next to the state cemetery.
“It’ll be smaller scale to start and then grow,” Deutsch said.
The county cemetery is also set to include plots reserved for first responders like police officers and firefighters, along with reservations for veterans of other nations allied with the United States who can’t be buried in the state’s veteran cemetery because they didn’t serve in the U.S. military.
County residents would also be able to reserve spaces in advance again once the Gypsum cemetery opens, according to Ward.
However, that new cemetery isn’t set to open until June 2026, and even with the proposed restrictions at El Toro, they’re set to run out of spaces by May 2025.
“If we do nothing,” Deutsch wrote in his September report, “There would be more than a year of families having to purchase space at other cemeteries, at a much higher price.”
To help bridge the gap, cemetery district staff are proposing redeveloping portions of the Santa Ana and El Toro cemeteries that weren’t designed to serve as burial grounds, including strategies like removing and replacing roads that cut through the cemeteries with more plots.
To view the areas staff are proposing for redevelopment, click here.
If all the suggested roads and infrastructure was removed, those cemeteries could hold another 1250 people and remain open until Nov. 2028, but Deutsch said that would require removing some necessary infrastructure and their goal was to be finished by 2026.
“It’s imperative, we’re doing everything we can just to get to the point of allowing for families who need us to bridge that gap between our existing cemeteries,” Deutsch said. “We could stretch it to 2027 or 28, if we had to we could do it, but closing those sections of roads is a worst case scenario.”
He also acknowledged that the planned opening of the cemetery in June 2026 may end up being pushed back.
“More than likely it’ll be later into 2026, if not into 2027,” Deutsch said.
Ward and Deutsch said the district had been looking for space for a new cemetery since as early as 2008, but weren’t able to find anything that could work until the board of supervisors offered up Gypsum Canyon.
“I’ll be honest, I was really nervous about whether we’d be able to pull this off,” Ward said. “Everytime we looked at something, we got undercut by the developers, and it was getting scary.”
Deutsch said they studied other sites, but this was the only one they could close the deal on.
“This wasn’t something we weren’t aware of,” Deutsch said. “There’s not a lot of land out there for public cemeteries or a cemetery in general.”
While the public cemetery is moving forward, the veterans cemetery is still in limbo, as the California Department of Veterans Affairs continues its study of whether the Gypsum site would work.
The Veterans Alliance of Orange County, one of the leading veteran groups pushing for a cemetery, says that study is set to be released in November, but Ward said the construction on the county cemetery would move forward with or without the state.
“We can’t wait for them. There’s just no inventory left, and we have a duty to public health to provide people with affordable burial grounds,” Ward said.
Ward added that the new cemetery is a “miracle,” adding that she couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to lay the departed to rest.
“I’m so proud of this project, the location itself is just stunning,” Ward said. “I will go to my grave proud of this.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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