Increasing Cemetery Revenue Through Cremation

Date Published: 
Original Author: 
Clifford F. Zell
President Of The Valhalla Chapel Of Memories, St. Louis, Missouri
Original Publication: 
NCA Cemetery Yearbook 1948-1949

When your chairman, Bill Boyd, asked me to accept a topic at this Convention, I readily agreed to do so because I knew he was going to ask me to talk on cremation, he knowing full well that this was the subject that I was best qualified to speak on and give to you gentlemen some basic information based on my past training. You can imagine my surprise when my topic arrived - "Increasing Cemetery Revenue." Well, gentlemen, we are still going to handle that subject through cremation and those profitable items which arise due to cremation or the operation of a crematory, so let's change this subject to read - "INCREASING CEMETERY REVENUE THROUGH CREMATION".

During the past 10 years I have attended at least one Convention and sometimes two each year, all dealing either with cremation or the operation of a cemetery, such as the CAA, ACA or the NCA I have heard various talks on how to do this and that and have tried to absorb those points that I thought would apply to my place of business, but if you want to get the real lowdown on the operation of a crematory or a cemetery, get in a car with another cemetery man, preferably a man that knows considerably more than you do or a man that is or has been an officer of this organization and has entree into any place, spend six weeks living together, visiting different burial properties each day and talking to the men who operate them; then if you don't come away from that trip a better operator you are in the wrong profession. It has always been my idea that the cemetery business was primarily the burial of the dead and the sale of lots, but it was on this trip that I learned that everything in the cemetery business could be simmered down to one word features or a feature. We all seek features with which to enrich our cemetery; we know that the day of a burial ground no longer exists in the American civilization. It is with this in mind that we seek to create in the form of memorials an atmosphere of beauty for the memory of those we serve. When I came home I decided to look at my own properties and take inventory of what we had. We truthfully thought that we had a most acceptable entrance with a beautiful rock garden just as you enter, no burials within 600 feet of the front entrance, well laid roads, rolling grounds, many magnificent monuments, a well located chapel, a crematory, a large mausoleum and several columbariums, and finally I decided - "No" - these are not what we have, but we do have features and features within features, and that is what they are today "Features of Valhalla," so I now must talk features to you. Of all the features that I saw they were all erected with one thought in mind, namely, to enhance that particular section of ground so that it would make that section a more desirable one in which to own a lot, or to assist in the sale of lots. I checked various locations on our property and noted one place where there was a stately old oak tree, well developed with long spreading branches, and realized that there had been many desirable lots sold and expensive monuments erected surrounding this tree. The lots were so arranged that they circled around the tree and the monuments placed so that the tree formed the background, this is no longer a mere tree, it now is a feature. It cost me nothing; Nature had been good to me, it had protected and grown this tree for many, many years. It certainly enhanced the value of this particular section in which it stood, but the lots have now all been sold, the tree has served my purpose as a producing feature, and I wonder what it is today, a tree or a feature. As a tree it has no value other than. the wood, cord wood, so maybe we had better look at another type of feature, a feature that will produce revenue from within itself in addition to having all the advantages that any other feature might have, You may need an administration building or a chapel in your grounds, you might feel that your cemetery should have a mausoleum unit or you might like to have a crematory and columbarium with a chapel in or near your cemetery. All of these revenue producing features are self liquidating and any of these features can be started first and provision made for the others to be added as conditions or needs arise.

I am particularly interested in that portion of these features that deals with the chapel and the crematory. I realize that I am talking to a group of men that represent many different size towns and various communities, and the possibilities or results will naturally vary according to the size and needs of your community, but I would like to say that these thoughts do not necessarily apply to only larger populated centers, because your buildings will be sized according to the needs of your community.

The erection of a chapel and crematory muchly broadens your trade territory because you will receive cremations from adjoining towns, and the many people coming to your chapel and crematory is always a desired position for your other properties. I know that the building of a chapel in our cemetery has done much for the cemetery. Our own lot owners take considerable pride in bringing their friends to visit the chapel. In very inclement weather, such as icy days and heavy snows in the winter, we use our chapel for ground interments, provided the chapel is not reserved for a cremation or mausoleum service. Our visitors at the chapel are many times more than the visitors to the cemetery. On those memorial days such as Easter, Mother's Day, Memorial Day and Christmas, many visitors have learned to come with their friends just to see the mass flower displays, and of course, our chapel is used for memorial services. It is a feature that they take pride in showing.

Cremation is not a new innovation; it dates back to early history, and today a great many people are cremationists or cremation minded. There are enough favorable points to cremation and indoor burial for cremation to stand on its own feet. By that I mean you do not have to degrade ground burial or mausoleum entombments in order to sell cremation. The opening of a crematory is going to bring many people to your property; people who have a dislike for ground burial those that are curious and they all will want to know more about cremation.

In opening a chapel and crematory it will naturally take some time before cremations begin to come to you, but remember the first crematory placed in operation generally controls the cremation business in that community, and unless you furnish that service someone else will do so. It is very apt to be one of the local funeral directors who realize the need of a crematory and can see the possibilities of operating one. Let the control of a crematory be vested in one local funeral director and immediately cremation will begin to be retarded in that community. The local funeral director will very probably plan on building his crematory in the basement of his funeral home where else can he build it? All he wants to be able to say is: "I can handle cremations for you." He will figure that by building a crematory he will secure practically all the cremation business in that locality, and without question it will be a profitable venture for him. This crematory would serve without the facilities which you are able to provide through your cemetery and chapel. With this would come the hesitance of other funeral directors to patronize a competitor, and could easily retard the acceptance of cremation in your locality. It is thus recognized that the crematory should be a part of the cemetery, and in so doing we have created another feature.

Cremation is a form of the burying of the dead and should be handled entirely by a local burying organization. It can be in a cemetery or adjacent to a cemetery, and at a location where everyone can visit and pay their respects to their loved ones. Cremation is not a method of disposal of the dead, but rather a method of preparation for permanent preservation.

This now brings me to another revenue producing feature the columbarium.

A columbarium is any place where cremated remains are permanently placed or inurned. This may be a building of its own, it may be a room off the chapel, or it may occupy a small chamber in a portion of your chapel. The manner in which cremations are first handled in any community is generally the manner in which cremations and columbariums are handled in that locality. There are two schools of thought in the cremation field, commonly referred to as the Eastern and Western ideas. In the Eastern part of the United States they formerly used cremation as a method of reduction in size so that burial could be made in an already overcrowded burial ground, while the Western or California idea is to use cremation as an entrance to indoor burial or entrance into a beautiful columbarium. It is the Western trend of thought that I am talking about. There are just as many people who believe in cremation and want to erect a fine memorial as there are families who purchase fine monuments in the cemetery grounds, in the ratio of cremationists to those who prefer ground burial; in other words, people do not believe in cremation because they want something cheap, it is because they do not want ground burial. We have many memorials in our columbariums that cost as much as $3,500.00 to $5,000.00, and in some of the larger, columbariums I know that they have sold many memorials at an even higher figure; but like any other business, your sales are not always those of the higher priced locations. You will have many in the lower price brackets, and this is the volume business.

Now, how do we go about securing this revenue producing feature? I am assuming that you have an office on the grounds, and if not you can include it in our feature, but you would like to have a chapel. This is quite a feature to any cemetery, but we want a revenue producing feature, so let us add a room on the rear of the chapel be sure that everything is kept on the same Boor level, because we do not want our crematory placed in the basement. You are going to show cremation to the public and it should be in a showable location, attractively designed and kept spotlessly clean at all times.

The story "Light Like the Sun," which was undoubtedly one of the finest articles ever written about cremation, appeared in the Reader's Digest in March, 1938, and was reprinted by public request ten years later in January, 1948. The main statement in that story was: "Tell me about it, it is what I don't know that I fear," according to Francis Newton, the author; and that is the public's request - tell us about cremation. They want to be able to see a crematory chamber where cremations are held, so have your crematory chamber built so that you can show them to anyone as you are explaining cremation.

Now when you build your chapel you will have to have some type of heating plant, which will necessitate a chimney, so let us enlarge this chimney and place two 18”x18” additional flues so that a crematory chamber or two can be added when needed. Do not raise your stack any higher than normally needed for your heating system because the present day crematory does not require a high stack. I know that one of your main questions right now is - How much will a crematory chamber cost me? I cannot give you that figure because it is going to vary according to how your building is arranged in preparation for a crematory chamber, but we do have men attending this Convention who can give you more definite information regarding your particular needs than I can in a general way. This will probably be a topic in our round table discussion, at which time I hope that their representative or any other one will be present.

The average price of cremation will vary from $40.00 to $60.00 in different parts of the country. The price of cremation will generally be about 33⅓ percent above your local grave opening and interment fees. A crematory with any number of cremations will prove a very profitable addition to your chapel. One desirable point about a crematory chamber is that there is practically no upkeep or maintenance unless you are running a large number of cremations, and under those conditions you can afford the maintenance cost.

Now that we have our chapel and crematory in operation we will need another revenue producing feature, a small columbarium. This can be located in any desirable place: it may be an additional room added to your chapel or you may have made provisions in building your chapel to have alcoves that can be used for columbariums. Remember that after your crematory the columbarium will be your next largest revenue producing feature, and is entitled to an appropriate location. In selecting the place for your columbarium choose one that is attractive and well lighted; in this room we will build niches -not many at first but a diversified group of sizes and types of niches. In some sections of the country people prefer a closed front niche, while in others they use a glass front niche in which cast bronze urns are placed. Personally I prefer this type of niche because my bronze urn business will amount to approximately sixty (60) percent of my niche sales and is a profitable item.

In the erection of our columbarium or group of niches I use a 12"x12" niche as my basic unit because from this many other size units can be made. A 12"x12" niche can be divided in half, either horizontally or vertically, making desirable companion niches, or they may be divided into quarters, forming single niches. For the larger niches partitions may be removed, forming various size niches. In every columbarium unit that I have built I have always had at least one memorial niche that is a feature of that room. I generally have an art glass window in this niche, and it is often sold first, because there are enough people who believe in cremation and desire a fine memorial to justify this type of a niche. May I caution you gentlemen, that you establish a policy concerning the type of memorials placed in your columbarium in the beginning; for example, that only cast bronze urns be permitted in glass front niches. If you do not have rather strict regulations regarding your urns you are apt to have quite a conglomeration of containers varying from jelly glasses to Woolworth's deluxe china. In your closed front niches make available permanent but less expensive type containers. It is the pattern that you set at the beginning that will regulate the beauty of the columbarium that you will have in years to come and the revenue which this feature will return to you.

I have brought several general designs of portions of different columbariums that we have, and I believe that I can show you that there is more money per square inch in columbarium sales than there is per square foot in cemetery lot sales.

Now if you are giving serious thought to the erection of a chapel and crematory in your cemetery take a trip and visit the various chapels, crematories and columbariums throughout the country, and I believe you will realize that the addition of these types of revenue producing features will mean an increase of revenue for your property.

From the publication:
1948-1949 NCA Yearbook