America’s cemetery problems

An unnamed neglected cemetery

Summer is, historically, a time that relatives visit the graves of long deceased members of the family.  Generally, between Memorial Day and Labor Day many families pack up for an afternoon and take a short trip to visit and do some upkeep on the family graves.  Others visit when they get back to their hometowns for a high school reunion or just to go visit relatives who still live in the childhood community.

Well, that is the way it used to be.  As Americans move more distant from their childhood communities and parents move to the Sunbelt for retirement, old childhood communities aren’t always the place we go in the summer anymore.  Historical, in many ways, fades into the new realities of parenthood, summer camps, youth sports, and just plain being busy at work. . . . and, of course, this summer, COVID-19 also alters our summer travel plans.

We’ve visited this issue here before. . . but it bears repeating. . .that small cemeteries in rural America – and some in our great cities are really having a hard time paying the bills just for upkeep.  Here’s an article from the Utica, New York, Times Telegram that gives notice of a meeting coming up tomorrow, July 2, concerning the going concern of the New Forest Cemetery in that community.

Here is the beginning portion of that article:

“There are three cemeteries along Oneida Street in Utica, all located on the east side of the road.

The smallest of these cemeteries, dwarfed by Calvary Cemetery and Forest HIll Cemetery, is New Forest Cemetery. After years of declining revenue and participation, the not-for-profit final resting place is staring its future in the face.

Lot owners have been notified of an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 2 at Hanna Park near Utica City Hall. A vote will be taken on the future of the cemetery — whether it will be reorganized or abandoned.

Representatives from the City of Utica and state Division of Cemeteries will attend the meeting to answer questions.

The problems facing New Forest Cemetery aren’t different from those facing other cemeteries around the country, said board member Debra Adamkowski.”

The article goes on to mention that the revenues from the streams of income for the cemetery – lot sales, burial charges, and investment income, are no where near the amount that it costs for the upkeep of the cemetery.  Board member Adamkowski states, “Our funding mechanism is severely broken.  It no longer works.”

And, from our point of view at Funeral Director Daily, we cannot see a fix to this funding challenge as the American way of death has changed and left these type of holdings (cemeteries) in a precarious position.  Here is an article that Funeral Director Daily wrote back in March 2019 on a cemetery owner that tried to give away a large metropolitan cemetery to the city it sits in.

Many cemeteries have an expense problem because of the upkeep needed that, in our opinion, can only be solved by bringing in more revenues.  And, the traditional ways of bringing in that revenue – lots sales and interment fees – are traditions that are quickly going out of favor with the consumer public.  Earth burial has been replaced by cremation with no expense reductions for cemetery upkeep.

The way to solve the problem, as we allude to in the previous paragraph is with revenue increases.  However, it appears that the best way cemeteries can get those revenue increases is with the sale of structures for memorialization of cremation.  Things such as columbariums or niches may help, but the problem with getting that revenue increase is that there is capital costs to build the structures that most existing cemeteries cannot finance because of balance sheet issues.

So, the beat goes on.  It appears to me that many association or abandoned church cemeteries are going to have to become wards of the communities that they lie in. . . city, county, or township owned.  It may be the only solution.

Here are a couple of other articles that deal with somewhat the same issues:

More news from the world of Death Care:

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