Lots of issues. . . and opportunities in the cemetery business




When I think of the cemetery in my little community in Minnesota.  I’m guessing, like a lot of other communities that grew up in the American “Land Rush”, the city cemetery came out of necessity.


When a pioneer citizen died the custom, and more than likely, the religious way to take care of the deceased human remains was earth burial.  The grave was dug, a body placed in the grave, and then the earth was returned to fill the grave.  This was probably done on the prairie and on family farm lots but, eventually, the little community donated property as a cemetery for the use of the entire community.


Depending on the size of the land donated, some of these cemeteries quickly became full and others still have lots of room for future interments.  Let’s suffice it to say that we now have cemeteries across the country in all kinds of situations that all have differing issues and opportunities.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

For instance, my little community cemetery has seen our population grow to about 40,000 from that initial 500 or so back in the 1860s.  Fortunately, enough land was appropriated to the cemetery that we have plenty of space left in what is a beautiful park like setting which includes blacktopped roads. . . . As a matter of fact on Saturday mornings in the summer I generally set off on my bike ride and include going through the cemetery.


Our cemetery has its issues though.  Even with a pretty solid endowment or perpetual care fund the era of cremation has taken its toll on the sale of grave lots and interment services and that has really dropped the cash-flow of the cemetery.  We’ve added mausoleum spaces and cremation niches, but the going rates for those and the margin to the cemetery post-construction does not make up for the high number of casket burials that have been lost to cremation.


When you consider that 20 years ago almost every citizen in the community purchased a grave lot and then paid the cemetery for the interment services and now only about 30% have earth burials you can see the financial challenges that have loomed.


But, it is interesting. . . . finances are not the only challenges for cemeteries across the country.  I’ve linked a couple of articles which tell of different challenges and how some communities are attempting to rise to the occasion in order to provide cemetery space to those in their communities that feel cemetery memorialization is the appropriate permanent memorial for their families.


Here’s a short article on an issue with cemetery space in South Florida.  Evidently the city of Fort Lauderdale operates four municipal cemeteries that are running out of space.  In an unusual potential solution, the article points out that the Fort Lauderdale Board of Cemetery Trustees voted 4-1 to consider “closing under-enrolled county schools and repurposing them as cemeteries by 2025″.  


Mike Watson, a representative on the Cemetery Trustee Board commented, “I honestly understand the school board has not made a decision but want to make sure you are aware of the need.”


Other communities in the country — especially those with a later establishment date than the 19th Century may not even have a city cemetery.  Two of those communities would be Eagle River and Girdwood in the state of Alaska.


Tom Looney, one citizen who is trying to establish the cemeteries in the community said this about the lack of a cemetery in his community, “Some of our community leaders, when they pass away, they end up shipping the body to the Lower 48 or Palmer or whatever.  We have no identity as a community, of who our founders were.”


Looney was instrumental, according to this article, in getting a referendum on a community ballot to allocate $4.1 million to build two cemeteries for the communities.  The referendum failed with only 44% of the vote in favor, but Looney says he is not done trying to solve this issue yet.


The other side of the Coin:  There is a lot in America that has changed in the 21st Century.  One of the things, and we’ve seen it with credit ratings whereas Americans are either moving into a category of really good credit or moving down into a category of less than stellar credit.  Probably for the first time in the credit rating history there are less people in the middle category of credit scores — i.e. you either have really good credit and capacity for loans or you don’t.


We’ve also got that way with politics. . . it seems we are either with the Right or the Left and fewer and fewer people are in the Centrist mode.


Are we moving to the extremes with our choices of funeral/cemetery care also?  Not necessarily based on financial ability, but sometimes I wonder if some Americans have no issue with paying high amounts for funeral and memorialization products and then some people want to just pay as little as possible.  . .  . . with fewer and fewer in the middle category?


Here’s why I bring that up. . . . .In Service Corporation International’s (SCI) 4Q 2023 Earnings Call back in March.  SCI Chief Executive Officer Thomas Ryan mentioned in an answer to a question, that the company has doubled the number of its “High End” cemetery purchasers from 2019 to today — purchases over $200,000 each.


Here’s exactly what CEO Ryan said in answer to the question:

Tom Ryan

So I think on consumer behavior, if you take the high end, we continue to see the high end going strong. And some of that average price and remember, these are over $80,000 sales. But to give you some perspective, we probably had about 400 of those that averaged around, call it, $200,000 sale, back in 2019, around that era. We’ve almost doubled the number of contracts. So going from 400 contracts at that level to 800, slightly up on the average too. And so that seems some pretty significant growth and continues to look strong. And again, we’ve always said that probably correlates best with housing and stock market. And I’d say if there’s anywhere we’re not seeing as robust in activities we like, it is at that lower end. And again, I think that correlates with a lot of other discretionary retailers out there that are seeing a little bit of a stall when you think about that consumer that may or may not be dipping into their savings a little harder, may or may not have the same access to credit, particularly not at attractive rates.”


There you have it. . . . . issues and opportunities in the cemetery realm.


Related article — “There’s no space”:  Residents concerned over lack of cemetery space in Boynton Beach.  News video and print article.  WPTV – West Palm Beach (FL)


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