APPLETON — Appleton’s running out of space at its only active cemetery, so a committee’s proposing a unique graveyard expansion to make room for more of the departed — above ground.

The project could create storage for hundreds of cremated remains in a columbarium, a first-of-its-kind for the town. Also proposed is a garden for scattering ashes.

Faced with a dwindling number of traditional grave sites at the town’s historic Pine Grove Cemetery, the idea behind the proposal is “To provide a (final) resting place for as many people in Appleton as possible with the land we have available,” said Lorie Costigan, Select Board chair and a member of the committee that came up with the idea.

That group, the Appleton ARPA Committee, is scheduled to recommend to the Select Board, at its Tuesday, Sept. 6 meeting, approval of the cemetery plan and three other projects to be funded by a sizable pool of federal money. Costigan and Scott Esancy are the Select Board representatives on the five-member committee.

The funds are from the COVID-related American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in 2021. It provides billions of dollars to states, counties, cities and towns for needs ranging from infrastructure to employee stipends.

Appleton received around $144,000. The ARPA Committee’s job was to recommend how it is to be spent.

Costigan called the program a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for small towns to “solve pressing needs.”

Normally, the projects in mind “would take a long time to come around in our regular town budget as extraordinary expenses,” said committee member Ed Carroll. Other committee members are David Flanagan and Amy Levine.

Of the proposed projects, the cemetery idea is last in terms of priorities, according to committee Chair Scott Esancy; the others are more pressing but less expensive. But it would get the bulk of ARPA funds, about 75 percent, he said.

That’s around $108,000. The amount would not cover the entire cost of the cemetery work, however. The rest could be raised through private donations and the sale of the new cinerary urn spaces, according to Esancy and Costigan. Fundraising details remain to be decided if the project is approved.

In order of priority, the other projects are as follows: a water treatment system for the fire station and town office; new dry fire hydrants, including securing easements; and a fireproof area for records in the town office.

Esancy and Costigan both said the projects were chosen to benefit the entire town. The key is “being as efficient as possible to serve all the residents,” Costigan said.

To that end, the committee is recommending something never before seen in Appleton or any nearby town, for that matter. It’s recommending that a columbarium be constructed in a wooded corner of Pine Grove Cemetery off Sennebec Road.

Typically, a columbarium installation consists of one or more structures or walls that contain from dozens to thousands of slots. Columbaria can be modest, as is the one proposed for Appleton, or massive, as is the case at large cemeteries. In Ancient Rome, they often were constructed underground. Called niches, the small, locker-like spaces in columbaria hold and safeguard funerary urns of cremated remains, the ashes of the deceased. Columbaria eliminate the need for interments of ashes in in-ground graves. In some cases, they can be built off-site and trucked to a cemetery for installation, according to online sources. They are also called niche walls. Individual niche spaces are typically covered with a plaque marked with the decease’s name and other information found on traditional grave markers. Often, they have a receptacle for flowers or wreaths.

Although final design details and costs remain to be worked out, an image the committee will give the Select Board shows three low-profile, rectangular structures whose walls are filled by niche plaques that secure and protect the urns inside. Each wall appears to have 90 niches. The proposed Appleton installation also would include a neighboring garden where loved ones can scatter ashes, committee members said. The amount of community support for the project will likely influence its ultimate size and design.

“I can envision a lot of support and interest, which would increase the number of niche walls to two,” Costigan remarked. “If enough people want to buy spaces, we could do two at the onset,” a suggestion she’ll bring to the full Select Board, she added.

Although such a cemetery structure might be a first for Midcoast Maine, Appleton’s columbarium would be modest compared to some others, particularly at large cemeteries. At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, for example, half of the approximately 160 funerals conducted each week are niche wall inurnments for cremated remains, according to the ANC website.

Its Niche Wall is about a half-mile long and holds thousands of cinerary urns in niches stacked several high. Each niche holds two to three urns, to accommodate spouses of veterans. The national military cemetery also has nine massive “columbarium courts,” row upon row of columbarium walls with niches stacked six high. The last to be built is 116 feet wide, 11 feet tall and 540 feet long. It has 20,296 niches, cost $15.6 million to build, and was dedicated in 2013, according to the ANC website. And still the 639-acre cemetery for the nation’s veterans is expected to run out of new grave sites by around 2042, according to a 2017 U.S. Army report to Congress.

Appleton is on a similar trajectory and is not the only Maine cemetery with available grave space issues that niche structures can help alleviate. At the Maine Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery in Augusta, all the grave sites already are taken, and niche walls are the only places left where veterans can be laid to rest, its website says. While not uncommon nationally, an online review suggests there are perhaps only from six to a dozen columbaria in Maine, several of those at veterans’ cemeteries.

Esancy visited one of those in Augusta and was impressed, he said. The concept is “different and it’s new,” for the region, Costigan said. “I don’t think there is a columbarium anywhere else in the Midcoast.” Pine Grove Cemetery is one of nine graveyards in Appleton and the only one still accepting intact or cremated remains for burial. And there are many of the latter, according to Esancy. But after being in use since at least the early 1800s, the 10.5-acre site is almost full and the remaining small piece of land available for graves is not expected to last long.

ARPA Committee Chair and Select Board member Scott Esancy displays a map of Appleton’s 10.5-acre Pine Grove Cemetery. A columbarium for funerary ashes and a scattering garden are proposed for the area just below the top center point on the map. Photo by Jack M. Foley

Creating above-ground space for urns will allow many more families to use the cemetery, according to the committee members. Pine Grove is open to any person, not just Appleton residents. “A lot of long-running families and residents would like to plan for space there, but we really don’t have much expansion room,” said Carroll, who’s also on the town’s planning board. Given the space constraints, the columbarium idea is “a very appropriate solution,” he said.

Esancy said, “Appleton is such a beautiful place, a lot of people want (Pine Grove Cemetery) to be their last resting place.” That includes Esancy, who already has a plot in the cemetery. His roots go back to a Hessian soldier in the American Revolution who came to the area in the late 1700s.

The committee is proposing the columbarium be located on the back side of the cemetery, near its Civil War Memorial, and pretty much out of sight of the rest of the facility. The spot is in dense woods with the bucolic Appleton Ridge viewscape as a serene backdrop. “You really won’t know it’s here unless you know it’s here,” said Esancy, standing with Costigan at the site just after noon Sept. 1.

Select Board Chair Lorie Costigan points to Appleton Ridge, which overlooks the site in Pine Grove Cemetery she hopes will be home to the area’s first funerary urn columbarium. Photo by Jack M. Foley

The entire committee had met at the site the day before to finalize its proposal. The ridge and that view are “symbolic” of Appleton, said Costigan, who grew up nearby and whose family history in the area also dates to the 1700s. The town’s cemeteries became the municipality’s property only about five years ago, when they were transferred to Appleton from a private association. Since then, the town has had to come up with “All kinds of new and different thought processes” to learn about and address cemetery issues, according to Esancy — including rapidly disappearing space for new interments. The great care that went into creation of the cemetery, the support it has received over the years and its upkeep since it opened, “Inspired all of us” as the committee considered the town’s needs and the historic site’s future, he said.

The Appleton Select Board’s Sept. 6 meeting starts at 6:30 at the town office at 2915 Sennebec Road.