Relative Values of Cemetery Lots, Services and Other Accommodations

Date Published: 
September, 1909
Original Author: 
Thomas White
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Convention

The creation of the modern cemetery and the renovation and reorganization of ancient cemeteries, accompanied as they have been by a decided increase in the cost of burial lots and services connected therewith, have given rise to the question: Do we receive value for the money paid, or do the cemetery authorities, taking advantage of the circumstances, tax us unduly in order to provide the necessary means for the furtherance of their pet schemes?

The elaborate care bestowed upon all modern cemeteries and the increased interest taken in the condition of older burial places, are matters of comparatively recent times; the outgrowth of advancing civilization, refinement and' education.

The present conditions introduce the question not only of men and means for present work but also the laying of the foundations upon which future generations may safely build.

The cemetery which in its inception failed to provide for the maintenance of the standard at the present time demanded, by working far too small it margin and laying a foundation too narrow for the structure it is called upon to bear, is today struggling with all the difficulties induced by poverty.

Relative values form a problem, perhaps the most serious one, with which the cemetery superintendent and his associates have to contend. Upon them devolves the responsibility not only of meeting the requirements of the present generation, but of laying the foundation of a system which will enable the cemetery authorities of the future to meet the ever increasing demands of their day.

The prospective purchaser of a cemetery lot is sometimes surprised at what he calls the fancy prices he is called upon to pay, not only for a burial lot, but for services performed thereon. He has vague ideas of the cost of land at so much per acre, of labor at current rates as also of excavating and replacing a few yards of earth. He is apt to overlook the fact, that location; the nature of the ground and some other matters, in the purchase of ground for cemetery purposes, are paramount. A fact which is most usually overlooked by the possessor of vendor of the same. In addition to this, high prices are sometimes charged on account of depreciation of surrounding property.

In laying out the grounds, the best and most expensive talent the country can furnish, is secured. In order to preserve and enhance the beauty of the natural features to be found in some of our park cemeteries, as also in the formation of avenues, plots reserved for ornamental planting and for parked entrances, certain areas of ground must be sacrificed.

When the land has been purchased and large amounts of money laid out and buried, since it is practically dead, in the erection of administration buildings, boundary walls and drains, notwithstanding that the plots most readily available are being disposed of and ground purchased by the acre is being sold by the foot, the expenses and difficulties encountered in making a cemetery have only just begun. Equipment must be purchased; the money expended for this purpose, however, is not dead but lively enough to call for constant reinforcements for renewal and repairs. Swamps must he drained and filled; ledge rock removed and barren land made to grow greensward. Also, judging from a few figures taken at random, enormous sums of money are lying unproductive in the way of unsold ground or stock in trade. One cemetery has lately purchased thirteen acres at a cost of $27,000; another has purchased one hundred and eight acres at a cost of $500,000; another two hundred and three acres at a cost of $200,000. While a cemetery we had the pleasure of visiting two years ago, has, according to its annual report, land valued at $300,000 upon which future generations will realize, but which for some time to come will be a source of expense rather than of income.

It is true that cemeteries are free from taxation, but we must not forget that expenses involved in the maintenance of avenues, of public safety and order are equivalent to the same expenses in towns and cities; and also, that these expenses must be met without the aid of public taxation. The value of real estate invariably moves in one direction. One cannot anticipate the time when under proper management, it will cease to be a source of income. On the other hand, a cemetery lot once sold becomes a source of expense and the trustees holding the money paid for it are on that account responsible for a proportionate share of the expense of administration, repairs and deterioration for all time.

For these reasons, in arranging the prices of cemetery lots a liberal policy must be pursued. The price to be obtained for the lot must cover the cost of purchase, construction and maintenance; and even then the ability to recuperate in case of losses which no amount of business sagacity could have prevented or foreseen must not be lost sight of.

Since nature has decreed that every man shall once in his life perform the office of dying and since the law demands that the dead shall be interred in certain specified grounds and that the control of these grounds shall be placed in the hands of competent and authorized persons, the use and patronage of the cemetery becomes compulsory.

In view of this fact it may be asked: What justification can there be in erecting such expensive structures and making such elaborate layouts as we find in our modern cemeteries, in an institution of public necessity?

The cemetery has simply moved with the times and must be placed in the same class with public buildings, parks, thoroughfares and places of worship. It is not generally considered a hardship that the poorest of us have to contribute, directly or indirectly, to the maintenance of these things.

The expenses connected with our final departure vary with locations and conditions, and like all other expenses are largely influenced by the prevailing custom of the times. The time when the dead were carried out and buried at the least possible expense consistent with decency has passed. Instead, the question invariably asked is: Is there anything more we can do?

Among those whom mortuary expenses affect the most seriously, the expense is lavished upon the funeral which tomorrow is but a memory; while the cemetery, the last resting place of dear friends, which is visited by the family for time without limit, receives but scant attention; and I think it safe to say, that in the majority of cases, the money paid for superfluities exceeds the amount paid to the cemetery including the cost of the ground.

As in life, so in death; the character or quality of our abode must be in keeping with the quantity of this world's goods which has fallen to our share. The rich will own an ample plot which is approached by broad and well-kept avenues and crowned by an expensive monument; while the poor will be laid away in a crowded neighborhood and his resting place will be known to the officials and remembered by a few friends.

The value of services must be measured by the same standard as the value of lots. It is quite likely that a contractor would be able to open and refill a grave at a less figure than that charged by the cemetery. An irresponsible gardener would grade your lot for ten to twenty percent less. Most of us have had some experience with foundations built by monument dealers.

The results of this kind of figuring are to be seen in nearly all cemeteries not established upon modern lines. In addition to the actual first cost there are the expenses of perpetual administration which, like Banquo's ghost, "Will not down." A general and uniform arrangement of graves and grading must be maintained and a record of all burials and many other classes of work kept. The Superintendent is often called upon to give account of work done by himself or by his predecessor a score or two of years previously. So that if graves were opened and all other work performed at contractor's prices, a substantial fee must be charged or a tax imposed upon all work done in the cemetery.

In comparing work done in the cemetery we must bear in mind that a great part of the work is done under conditions not found outside; for building foundations and burial vaults and for all work connected with burials we cannot arrange a date. A sufficient number of men must be kept on hand to execute any order promptly and for whom it is sometimes impossible to find profitable employment.

I find that the charge for opening a grave in a large cemetery is from five to seven dollars. In the smaller cemeteries it is nearer three dollars. In the larger cemeteries more money is demanded for a single grave than we get for a family lot. Our forms of burial are simple; we dispense with uniformed attendants, shelter tents, rubber mats and lowering devices.

It is needless to say, of course, that our margin is correspondingly small. We have a less imposing administrative staff and if we have not a simpler way of keeping records we have a cheaper place in which to keep them.

There is a credit side to this question we must not fail to look at. As the cemetery improves in appearance and increases in wealth and importance, so increase the responsibilities and expenses. Your superintendent must be a man of sterling worth; of qualifications too numerous to mention here; and he will not fail to realize that the laborer is worthy of his hire.

Cemetery work creates within the heart of the Superintendent a feeling of fealty so strong that nothing but a call to the better land or to a better position will sever the bond between him and his employer. Taking any other position with an equal number of patrons to serve, equally important interests to guard and requiring the same amount of general ability and technical skill as the positions filled by the cemetery Superintendent and his assistants, together with the remuneration received therefore and the Superintendent and his assistants would not gain much by the comparison.

A man who embraces any other branch of professional or mercantile life expects to be able to retire in time to enjoy a few years of life between the office and the cemetery. He not only expects to be able to glide down the hill of life easily, to make ample provision for his family but invariably leaves a lucrative business to give his sons a start in life.

The cemetery Superintendent invariably dies in harness and leaves behind for his family nothing but the leg of a stocking with a few odd dollars he may have been able to put into it.

Your clerical staff and your responsible men must be up to the standard and you will find that a good man will not work for a cemetery for less than he can obtain elsewhere where there are chances of promotion or of partnership. In the interests of the cemetery the remuneration must be liberal enough to insure not only their conscientious labor but their hearty interests.
It is not my intention in this paper to criticize the principles upon which the modern cemetery is conducted, neither to pile up figures upon figures and facts upon facts nor to weary you with innumerable comparisons when there are so many men waiting to give us the benefit of their wider experience. As this may be read by some outside the brotherhood I have perhaps gone a little wide of technicalities and spoken in a general way of a few important matters with which the general public does not always trouble itself.

I am aware that I have not offered you much information, but with my limited experience I will be honored if I may have opened the way' for the better informed to do so.

If I may make free with the words of a celebrated humorist: "I have not told you all of the truth" about the relative values of cemetery lots and services, but enough to show my seniors and superiors in the profession, the necessity of their giving us information upon this subject, which I hope they will lose no time in doing.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Convention
Held at New York City, NY
September 14, 15 and 16, 1909