Supporters of Anchorage-area cemeteries say they’re not giving up after $4M bond fails

The Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery in April 2024. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

This month, Anchorage residents voted down a $4.1 million bond that would’ve fulfilled supporters’ yearslong goal to get two cemeteries built in two communities on opposite ends of the municipality — Eagle River and Girdwood. Right now, neither community has a public cemetery.

Tommy O’Malley said he’s been working on getting a cemetery in Girdwood for so long that when the bond failed, people reached out to him in sympathy. 

“The people that have called me up that know that I’ve been doing this a long time, they’ve been giving me condolences, like, you know, my mom died or something,” O’Malley said.

Fifty-six percent of voters rejected the bond to help fund the Girdwood work and two other cemetery projects. It was one of just two bonds to fail in this year’s city election. But supporters of the projects, O’Malley included, say they’re not giving up on the cemeteries just yet. They say they’ll look for other funding and work on improving messaging on the projects’ importance.

“The inertia is making sure that people understand the need,” said Tom Looney, one of the drivers of the other major cemetery project, in the Eagle River-Chugiak area.

In Girdwood, O’Malley said the land for the proposed cemetery, uphill from the Double Musky Inn, is already owned by the city, and the $1.75 million in bond money would’ve gone to developing the essential parts of his vision

“Even without the driveway, even without the trails, you could go back with a grid and pick your grave site and bury a person or put their cremains in the ground,” O’Malley said. “And the grid would keep track of where the bodies are buried.”

On the other side of the municipality, up north, Looney said it’s important for the Eagle River area to have its own public cemetery. It’s a symbol of any community, he said.

“You go and visit a community in the Lower 48, how many of those communities don’t have cemeteries?” he said.

Tom Looney has been working for years to get a cemetery built in Eagle River. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Like Girdwood, Eagle River and Chugiak are separate towns that are part of the Municipality of Anchorage. Looney said a big reason he began thinking about establishing a cemetery was to help uphold the towns’ histories, independent of the big city.

“Some of our community leaders, when they pass away, they end up shipping the body to the Lower 48 or Palmer or whatever,” Looney said. “We have no identity as a community, of who our founders were.”

Like the Girdwood project, the Eagle River cemetery would’ve received $1.75 million from the bond. The location for that cemetery would be on Wolf Den Drive, across from Eagle River High School. 

Unlike the Girdwood project, Looney said the bond money would’ve likely covered the full cost of the Eagle River project, including a small maintenance shelter and a small roofed area for inclement weather.

“Bad weather, people would be able to stand under a shelter, as they were having a ceremony out there,” Looney said. “Really no frills for the Chugiak-Eagle River cemetery. It was pretty bare bones.”

Anchorage Memorial Cemetery director Rob Jones. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The remaining half a million dollars in the bond would’ve gone towards maintenance at the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery. Cemetery director Rob Jones said the city got a large donation of 2,000 grave markers about 20 years ago, but they were installed directly into the ground, instead of into concrete like the city does now. 

“So out of the 2,000 markers that we got donated, 80% of them are overgrown and functionally not marking graves anymore,” Jones said.

He said most of the bond money, about $350,000, would’ve gone to fixing those markers. The rest would’ve been for upgrades to make the cemetery more ADA compliant and to build a new columbarium for urns.

After 20 years, roughly 80 percent of the grave markers donated to the Anchorage Memorial Cemetery are overgrown. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Supporters say it’s unclear why so many voters rejected the bond, but Jones said lumping the three projects together may have turned people off. 

“I wasn’t confident that it would pass,” Jones said. “It had such a big price tag on it.”

While the bond didn’t directly address capacity in the Anchorage cemetery, Jones said it’s a looming issue. He anticipates the cemetery will run out of plots for the public by July. 

“Yeah, we’re down to like 20,” Jones said.

Jones, Looney and O’Malley said they still plan on pursuing the funding to get their projects done, whether it’s through donations, grants or trying to get another bond together.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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