Nevada Cemetery District celebrates 75 years |

Nevada Cemetery District celebrates 75 years

Nevada Cemetery District employees ready to dedicate the new "Niche" at the Penn Valley Cemetery Thursday morning.
Elias Funez/ |

By the numbers, the Nevada Cemetery District is impressive.

The first number is 75, which is how many years the district has been around. Need more numbers? Well, there’s 27, which is the number of cemeteries in the district. More? There are 35 acres of cemetery in western Nevada County.

When it comes to both numbers of cemeteries and area those cemeteries take up, that’s the largest cemetery district in the state.

“Most municipal cemetery districts have one or two public cemeteries,” said Nevada Cemetery District Manager Matt Melugin. “Ours started, however, with a need for proper historical cemeteries and maintenance.”

Long history

Gary Plunkett, who held Melugin’s job before retiring, was the longest tenured district manager of any during the 75 years. When he took the job in 1980, he was planning on returning to Chico to get his teaching degree.

“The cemeteries hadn’t been maintained for five years,” Plunkett said. “The guy ahead of me had cancer. They kept him on but he just wasn’t able to get out there.”

By the time Plunkett was heading out, he said there were some areas where the grass was so tall it was starting to fall over. He said he and his co-worker Dave Harper were the only two on the job, so they dug in.

“That was tough,” Plunkett said. “There was a lot of overtime.”

He said he spent the next two years catching up. By then he was immersed enough in the job that he stayed on. He never did make it up to Chico. Plunkett finally retired in 2014, which is when Melugin took the reins.

Plunkett recalled that first year his department’s budget was $58,000. Today there’s an operating budget of nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

Dennis Cassella was the director of Nevada County Services for more than 30 years and currently serves as chairman of the board for the cemetery district. He’s seen his share of change, too, since getting involved back in 1977.

For years, Nevada County held on as a place that wouldn’t charge for a burial plot. The county didn’t do what the managers refer to as openings and closings, either (digging the graves and filling them back in.) The acquisition of equipment eventually allowed the district to start performing those services and they started charging for plots.

Catching up

Those changes allowed the district’s budget to grow.

“Burials fluctuate, but we became pretty much self sustainable,” Plunkett said. “Even during the 2008 crash, we didn’t lay off any employees. We had to get creative … it was a tough time. But we made it.”

Back when Cassella was starting to get involved, Nevada City’s now infamous HEW Building was the county’s health department and there was a maintenance building out back. That’s where the cemetery district was housed.

Now the district has it’s own building — still back behind the HEW building — for its trucks, equipment and an office.

When Plunkett decided it was time to step aside, he said he felt comfortable the district was in good hands.

“When I left I said ‘this is the guy,’” Plunkett said of Melugin. “I actually went to school with his mom, and I watched the way he worked and how he did things. I could have stayed on a couple more years, but I didn’t need to.

“And those have been happy years. I’ve been happy with retirement.”

Cassella echoed the sentiment, saying the board has been happy with Melugin’s work.

Looking ahead

In September, the Board of Supervisors on the County of Nevada passed a resolution proclaiming 2017 as the 75th Anniversary of the Nevada Cemetery District.

With 75 years of history to live up to, Melugin is working to take the district forward. On Thursday, for example, the district officially opened its “Niche” at the Penn Valley Cemetery.

“It’s an above ground internment for cremation remains,” Melugin said. “The Penn Valley Cemetery is running out of in-ground plots; they’re becoming scarce.”

Melugin added cremation is becoming an increasingly popular choice.

Also something relatively new for the district is what they call green burials. For about a year and a half, the district has offered green burials at its Cherokee Cemetery near Ananda Village in North San Juan. Melugin believes the Nevada Cemetery District is the first public district in California to offer the service.

Green burials forgo the traditional coffin, and bodies aren’t embalmed.

“There’s either a wood casket with no metal or the body is just put in a burial shroud,” Melugin said. “It allows the body to return to the earth in as clean and natural a way as possible.”

Melugin expects green burials to expand to other cemeteries in the future.

Ross Maak is the City Editor at The Union. He can be reached at

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