Building A New Memorial Park

Date Published: 
September, 1938
Original Author: 
George Meagher
President, Whitemarsh Memorial Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Original Publication: 
NCA Cemetery Yearbook 1938-1940

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen: Once again I come before this august body as a pinch-hitter, and knowing that pinch-hitters usually have the habit of striking out, I hope too much will not be expected of me in trying to cover the subject, "Organizing the New Cemetery."

Mr. William Nelson, my associate in Whitemarsh Memorial Park requests me to extend his deepest regrets and apologies for being unable to attend our meeting here this morning, and to deliver his own address. Business and other circumstances made it impossible for him to be present. He wants me to say, however, that he is going to try to run over to attend a few of the sessions, to say "hello" and to renew some of his former acquaintances.

On my own behalf, I am gratified to see such a large attendance and look forward to an ever-increasing association, built on the right ideals, with a broad-mindedness to find a place for all the different groups associating in our business, whether it be monument or non-monument. I personally believe that if each and every man's honest opinion is considered sincerely and respected by the other fellow, we will go far. Should just the opposite occur, I am fearful for it.

Let us pause on this point for just a moment. As you are all aware, this Association was built up out of the meeting we held in Chicago about four years ago, at which time several memorial park owners got together for the purpose of binding ourselves in an association for our mutual protection. Later on the name of the association was changed to the "American Cemetery Owners Association" with the idea in mind of taking into this group, the owners of cemeteries other than memorial parks, until today we have quite a large percentage representing this type of the business.

We believe there is room for all groups and all opinions in this business, providing one or the other group is not dominated or discredited in the eyes of the opposing group. We invited owners of cemeteries other than memorial parks into our group. We gave unsparingly and unselfishly of our knowledge and experiences under the banner that there was room for all and that we should do everything possible for everybody else. Let us not take away that banner standing for this mutual understanding. I do not mean, however, that we should countenance or approve unethical selling methods. I have said before and I now reiterate--crooked promoters and crooked salesmen have no place and are not wanted in this Association. Let us maintain and keep alive that splendid spirit that has carried us this far and let there be no pause in the good fellowship and the sincere desire to help the other fellow. May I say this for the Association: This is our aim; this is our ideal.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, I was pinch-hitting on a talk regarding the "Organizing of a New Cemetery," and not the aims and ideals of an association. Those of you, who know me well, will realize that I am a drifter, drifting from one subject to another; they say this is a form of insanity. But I am not going to worry about that at this time-I'll let you worry about it. Then too, you will also know that on a dry subject such as the one I am supposed to talk about, I am certainly stepping out of character. You know, I don't know where Roy Hatten gets all the subjects that he hands out to the different speakers, I suppose he pulls them out of a hat.

There is not really much you can say about the organizing of a new cemetery. It can be briefly put in a few words and paragraphs, and on the surface this would appear to be all the requirements, but as many of you have sadly found out, there is a great deal more to it than appears. Before you get actively engaged in the business of a cemetery, it appears simple. After you are in it awhile, you will find out that you are in one of the most difficult businesses in the world today. This is what I would call an "opposite" business. You do everything opposite to what you would first think the proper procedure.

The first requisite upon entering the cemetery business is to get "bitten by the itching bug." By that I mean the "Cemetery Bug.” These bugs usually bite you on the palm of the hand and you develop an itching palm. That is your take-off into the realm of cemeteries.

In the original organization, of course, there are several steps to be taken. First, a suitable plot of ground should be secured, preferably without streams, for in many states the health laws prohibit the establishing of a cemetery, through which runs any streams that are tributary to streams from which drinking water is secured. In the highly populated areas this applies to practically all streams. This piece of ground should also be as free of rock as possible, and suitable for burial purposes. In choosing your property, I believe two of the most important features to be taken into consideration are: First, that it be not very distant from the center of the residential population. In larger cities, I would say this should be approximately 10 to 15 miles. In smaller cities or towns, this distance should be considerably less, and most important of all, there should be transportation, and from an advertising standpoint, the property should be located along the main highway. This saves thousands and thousands of dollars in educating the public to go up some side road to find your cemetery.  The ground also should rise somewhat above the roadbed. I found that people do not like to look down upon a cemetery from a highway.

After the acquiring of the ground, it becomes necessary of course to get the cemetery charter, establish an office, the advertising and training of salesmen, proper literature for their sales kits. Some of the grounds should be cleared and at least a few acres at the front and preferably the entrance should be improved. This Improvement Program, to those selling from an investment angle, should not be carried too far back of the entrance. Quite an item in your sales talk is the visualization of future improvements. Your improvements can be planned by any architect and the actual construction can be carried on by yourself if you have the proper superintendent and other lieutenants such as a civil engineer, a landscape gardener, etc., which is the method we pursued in building Whitemarsh Memorial Park. Most of the work in building our park has been done by the company's own departments and their own labor. In doing it in this manner there is a tremendous amount of saving.

May I say here, that one of the last major improvements in Whitemarsh Memorial Park is now being built, and that is the Tower of Chimes.  It will be 172 ft. high, built of steel, granite and limestone. The general contractor on this particular job is the company itself. We believe in doing it this way. On the tower unit alone we will save in the neighborhood of $25,000.00. So you see that doing your own work, if you want to take the trouble to supervise this phase of the business, saves the company considerable money. All you have to do after that, is to sell lots, put the improvements in, keep faith with your customers, and live up to your promises, and behold, you have a beautiful memorial park no matter what part of the country you are situated in.

It seems the only thing I can think of after all this is to recommend to you one of the 100 page sales booklets which has been compiled by my other associate, Mr. Lawrence C. Downey, of Whitemarsh Memorial Park, and which explains in detail how to sell and train men for every phase of this particular business. There have been so many repeated requests for a copy of Larry's book that I understand he is contemplating printing some extra copies and selling them to fill these requests.

All this sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, that is how the building of memorial parks sounds to almost, everyone you sell a lot to.  Their first expression is, “What a swell and profitable business. Gee, I would like to start a cemetery." I remember back in about 1925, when I was a real estate broker on the New Jersey coast. You will well remember that we had quite a boom for a few years, which continued until about 1927. One day I happened to be sitting with another broker. It was he who really put the cemetery bug in my ear. I can hear him saying now, "George, after we have sold off all the coast line of the state of New Jersey, I think the cemetery business would be a good one to go into. You get 100 or more lots to the acre and you don't depend on booms to bring you customers."

That remark started me thinking, and from 1925 until 1930 I was investigating cemeteries at every opportunity, securing all the data and information available. The more I investigated, the more I thought that this was the real thing; that creating a cemetery was nothing but just an easy job. I was never more mistaken in my life. About the latter part of 1929, after the stock market crash, I was joined by my two associates, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Downey, and we did all the things that I mentioned before, and after all the exhaustive searches that I had made, and after we had had our eye teeth cut, and the new organization of the cemetery already set up, then we really began to find out the real way to run a cemetery-after it was organized.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the organization of a new cemetery goes way back to your school days. For a man or woman to be successful in this field must, out of necessity, have certain training along certain lines and certain qualifications which are obtained only through hard years of experience in visualizing the future, feeling the pulse of the public, experience in selling from a development standpoint, and a lot of other qualifications too numerous to mention.

You have gone through the country and you have observed memorial parks started, and a good many of them, alas, too many of them, are at a standstill. You have also run across men in this business that have the ability to build cemeteries, who have started perhaps more than one, and instead of keeping faith with the customer, and really building the cemetery, they put in the least improvements possible. You also have heard one of the real pioneers and a man of ability in this field; say the cycle of success in any particular business was to have a definite, safe profitable plan, with capable and honest management. If you have all these particular qualifications in your business, you will be successful and you will also realize what I mean when I say the organizing of a cemetery starts back in your school days. I would lay more stress on the latter of these requirements, and that is honest and capable management."

Honesty, of course, comes first, and capability second in the organizing of a new cemetery, for this business can only be a real success in capable hands. That might apply also in other businesses, but it seems that you can hire capable employees to handle your affairs in other businesses, but where on earth are you going to hire that which this business needs most; a capable sales manager who has had years of experience along certain necessary lines in this land of ours.  I know this is next to impossible, for I have heard many, many cemetery owners asking this same question.

A banker friend of mine once said to a man in his office, who was getting bitten pretty severely by the cemetery bug, and the great idea of a memorial park. His remarks to this man summed up, I believe, most emphatically the requirements in organizing a new cemetery.  “It is true that the memorial park idea is wonderful and everything you think it is.  That, Mr. Blank, is 5%.  The other 95% in accomplishing this great idea is sales ability in that particular field."

This banker’s words, Ladies and Gentlemen, express more than the things that I have been saying to you here this morning about what it takes to organize a new cemetery.  I believe that to be really successful in this business, active constant application in governing the affairs of a cemetery company should be confined to a few people who can closely watch through personal management every detail of this business.  I believe that your improvements should be strictly in accord with your brochure and never make a promise to the public or to the salesmen that you cannot and will not keep. Double all the promises to the salesmen and triple all the promises to the public and have the money in your hand before you let a contract for improvements.

A man’s personality is reflected in many ways: his handwriting, his personal appearance, the way he walks, how he accomplishes his work - are all a personal reflection of the character of the man.  So too, is the way you run your business and the way you build your cemetery, a personal reflection of your character. Those of you who have come here lacking some of the fundamental knowledge, experience and ability to carry your park any further than probably the initial start, where it may be getting stagnated, may I respectfully suggest this to them: First, try to get the proper sales manager. This I know is almost impossible, but failing in that, I would suggest that you sit down and talk with those of us here belonging to the Association, who know sales in this particular field. You will find quite a few of them here among you, and you will also find that they are ever ready to give you any ideas that they may possess to help you further along the road to success.

In closing, may I invite you to visit Whitemarsh Memorial Park.  It is less than two hours by automobile or train, and for most of you who are going west, your ticket will provide stop-over privileges in Philadelphia. You will see what we believe to be an execution of the principles that I have mentioned, and you will also see that we have strived to build a very beautiful memorial park. One that we hope is a credit to us and to the Association. It is needless to say, that you will be welcome. I sincerely trust you will pay us a visit.

From the publication:
“ACOA 1938 Cemetery Handbook and Buyers’ Guide"
8th Annual Meeting and Convention held at
Hotel New Yorker, NY