PEORIA — The growing popularity of cremation has not been good for cemeteries.

Since taking over the reins at Springdale Cemetery six years ago, general manager Mark Matuszak has watched the number of burials decrease, a trend that is making it difficult for the publicly-funded cemetery to reach its financial goals.

It’s a trend that will likely continue. Cremation has become more socially acceptable, and it’s simpler and cheaper than burial. So Matuszak has decided to jump on the trend by offering a service no one else in the area offers — a scattering garden.

“Most people don’t realize scattering cremains without permission is illegal virtually everywhere,” he said while driving through the immense historic cemetery to the newly created Prairie Gardens on Monday afternoon. “Do you know where they have the biggest problem? Disney World. People scatter remains there routinely.”

While families can bury cremated remains in cemeteries and erect a headstone to mark the spot, the vast majority do not.

“About 80 percent of cremains go home with the families and are kept on the fireplace mantle, a closet shelf, in the attic, or wherever,” said Matuszak. “Though people often request that their remains be scattered somewhere specific, often the family never gets around to it.”

Matuszak is offering families a solution.

Situated on a hillside at the bottom of the South Bluff section of the cemetery, Prairie Gardens is part of 15-acre parcel of native tallgrass oak savanna protected by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Trees tower over the site, and wildflowers are starting to pop out of the newly thawed earth.

Enhancing the natural beauty of the area is a round patio decorated with granite columns and columbarias, which double as benches.

“Families can come here and have a gathering, then take the remains and scatter them on the hillside,” said Matuszak.

Cremains scattered at Prairie Gardens will be memorialized with a small plaque mounted on a granite monument soon to be installed at the site. Families can choose from three different sizes of plaque — the largest and most expensive will include a photo of the deceased. For families who don’t want to scatter their loved one’s ashes, 20 niches have been created at the site.

Another benefit of scattering ashes at Springdale is that the final resting place of the deceased will be recorded in the permanent records of both the cemetery and the state of Illinois. In the future, people will be able to do an internet search and find relatives scattered at Springdale.

A ribbon cutting ceremony for Prairie Gardens will be held on May 31. The project was about four years in the making, from concept to completion. Clearing the overgrown forest took about two years.

“Mike Rucker and his crew with Peoria Wilds cleared out this area, which was just terribly overgrown with exotic, invasive plants,” said Matuszak. “They would pile all the debris on the road and then cemetery staff would come out with skid steers to take it to the dump area.”

Peoria Wilds is a group of volunteers who restored and continue to maintain the savanna at Springdale. They are very protective of the site, and along the way there was much spirited debate about placing a scattering garden within the protected natural area. The debate continued as ideas for the hardscape design were being tossed about, said Matuszak.

“There was some resistance to putting concrete in the savanna,” he said. In the end, not a single tree was cut down to accommodate the hardscape, and the use of concrete was kept to a minimum. Only the 30-foot patio is made of poured concrete, pathways were constructed with water-permeable crushed granite.

The project cost just under $90,000, and was paid for with capital funds, donations from the Springdale Cemetery Historic Preservation Foundation, and private donations, said Matuszak, who is predicting a good public response to Prairie Gardens. Already three niches have sold, and two scatterings are scheduled for later this summer. The cost of a scattering, including a small memorial plaque, runs from $395 to $595, depending on when the service is held.

“I see this as a part of Springdale’s obligation to the community,” said Matuszak. “Every option that’s available should be available at Springdale.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.