Transforming an Old Line Cemetery into a Memorial Park

Date Published: 
September, 1940
Original Author: 
Chester J. Sparks
Forest Hills, Philadelphia, PA
Original Publication: 
1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers' Guide

Philadelphians are quite proud of their tradition that it takes three generations to make a true Philadelphian, while one may become a New Yorker over night.

The same principle applies to old line Cemeteries. You cannot transform them into a Modern Cemetery by simply waving a wand and declaring that in the New Addition no upright monuments will be allowed. Edgar Guest, one of my fellow Detroiters, wrote quite a poem, entitled: "It takes a heap of living to make a house a home." In this poem he described the joys, the tribulations and heartaches that make our fireside a sacred, comforting place. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of inspiration, a lot of perspiration, a lot of capitalization to transform a City of the Dead into a Burial Estate designed for the living as well as for the dead.

Forest Hills Cemetery was established in the Northeast corner of Philadelphia 42 years ago. During its span of existence it has passed through the hands of many owners, individuals, corporations, syndicates and selling organizations. Each of the owners and each of the selling organizations had different ideas in the building and selling of cemetery property. Fortunately for the Forest Hills of today none of these ill ¬conceived ideas are irreparable. Fortunate too, are we in the fact that we have not inherited a tombstone thicket, for all during the years care and discretion has been exercised in the type and style of the monuments erected therein. Our greatest heritage is the wonderful, natural beauty of Forest Hills, for you can travel the country over, and nowhere will you find a burial ground with more beautiful rolling hills or wooded areas. That natural beauty, with the possibilities of enhancing it with manmade beauty, is the reason why I am now in Philadelphia. Nowhere have I seen greater possibilities for a sales engineer to work hand in hand with landscaping engineers to create a modern cemetery that will rank with the country's finest, when these improvements are carried out.

The subject assigned to me has been a difficult one to prepare. If I were speaking to you on a matter of sales theory, I could speak freely and earnestly. However, I must speak to you in the light of my actual experience, and relate the work that I performed day after day during the five months I have been engaged in this new endeavor. Naturally in such a short space of time, miracles cannot be wrought, and I am going to handle this talk as if it were addressed to each of you as an individual, and not to an audience of hundreds of cemetery experts gathered from all over the North American Continent. I am going to picture you as if you were individually seated at my desk in Philadelphia and that you and I, are swapping our common experiences in the operation of our sales departments and of our cemeteries. I have done this in the past with many of you here, and you and I have sat across our respective desks in many States in this country. When you and I talked to each other indi¬vidually, it did not sound like braggadocio, but from our conversation we each gathered points of information to help us in our future endeavors.

In the experiences I am to relate to you, you will find no startling innovations, no cure-all solutions to our many problems. During the past 10 years in which I have been engaged in this fascinating work of manu¬facturing and merchandising modern cemetery property, I have, come across many sales ideas. A lot of these ideas were very, very bad - a few of them were good. The only way in which I, have ever been able to separate the wheat from the chaff, was to take all of these ideas apart, piece by piece, to see whether or not they were feasible. This cannot be done by sitting behind a mahogany desk - it must be done in the field, face to face with the prospect or the lot owner, or, if you please, your Board of Directors ... In these 10 years, therefore, I learned which ideas have worked, and which should be discarded. In my present connection I have tried to use these ideas that clicked, not experimenting again with the ideas which had failed to produce results. So draw up your chair a little bit closer to my desk and light a fresh cigarette, while I proceed to go into my story.

Fifteen years ago a new Memorial Park area was opened at Forest Hills, that is to say, it was called the Memorial Park area. The restrictions of the cemetery forbade the erection of upright monuments in that area ¬also forbade the installation of bronze memorials in the same area, allowing only stone or granite memorials, of any size or description, just so they were installed flush with the ground. The first step I took was to have our Board of Directors amend the By-laws of the cemetery, so that bronze memorials, installed flush with the ground, would be permitted in any section of the cemetery - monumental, as well as non-monumental. Our new letter heads describe it as Forest Hills Cemetery and Memorial Park. In other words, we immediately brought to the attention of the public that we have a complete line of Cemetery lots. The Ford dealer is fortunate in the fact that he has a complete line of automobiles, appealing to all pocket-books and all tastes - the Lincoln, the Zephyr, the Mercury, and three models of Fords. So it is with us - if a man wants a $10,000.00 monumental burial estate, we can take care of him. We do not have to spend time in selling him on a new idea and losing the sale if we are unsuccessful in selling that new idea. We have property that appeals to the great middle class, and also to the low income class, although we do not have any single graves for sale. Our plans call for the completion of a separate entrance to the Memorial Park area, so that one may enter there direct from the Main Highway without driving through the Monumental Sections.

We do not have an unlimited amount of money at our disposal with which to make some very necessary rehabilitations and improvements, so my immediate job was to make those improvements, not only where they were most needed, but also where they would show up to the best effect to let our large family of lot owners know that new life had come to their dormant, sleeping cemetery. During the past 10 years there had been no sales force whatsoever at Forest Hills, and although the interment business continued on a good even keel, increasing lack of funds had been felt from year to year, and naturally many jobs had been allowed to remain undone through the need of money with which to carry out those necessary repairs.

The first Sunday after my arrival, which incidentally was Easter Sunday, the visitors to the cemetery were surprised to see a beautiful pair of white swans gliding gracefully over our lake. They not only stopped a long time to admire these swans, but they remarked to themselves and to me that something new was happening here. That one expenditure of $45.00 for this pair of swans brought an amazing touch of life to a place in which no life had existed before. Several stretches of road were repaired at once, and the lot owners, as well as the prospects could get a graphic idea of how all of the roads throughout the cemetery would look when our improvement program is completed. The purchase of a funeral chapel tent drew many immediate favorable comments from funeral parties, and from funeral Directors themselves. Lower cost in Cemetery maintenance was secured immediately through the purchase and use of a 75" Power Mower, for the cutting of the lawns in the Memorial Park area, instead of by the 30-inch mowers which had been used previously. Another innovation which appealed to our lot owners and prospects alike was the free flower bed, with a beautiful enamel sign containing the inscription "These flowers are free for use on graves."

The first time I set out by myself to drive to the cemetery I had one deuce of a job finding it. I did not want to have to stop to ask for directions, but I was forced to do so. At the cemetery I had difficulty in distinguishing where certain sections were located, even though I had the map of the grounds before me. It was not long before a beautiful gold leaf raised letter entrance sign was erected at Forest Hills. Small metal signs were placed on each side of our burial sections, these signs bearing the name of that particular section. Small arrow directional signs were placed at all important road intersections leading to our cemetery.

The cemetery administration building looked worse than a Country Store at Simkins Corner. It was dingy and shabby, inside and out. I had often heard of the miracle a few coats of paint could create, and I saw this happen before my very eyes. The interior of the office with this light paint, with its bright linoleum on the floors and the Venetian blinds on the windows, has become a place of which we are all proud instead of apologetic as heretofore. The shining whiteness of the exterior has brought our cemetery forcibly to the attention of the motorist who use the highway, and the railroad passengers of the New York line of the Reading Railway, which passes before our Administration Building door.

For a great many years, the only City office of the Cemetery was a small bookkeeping office in the center of town. I immediately moved our Executive office to a modern daylight, office building located 4 miles north of the City Hall, but 4, miles nearer to our cemetery. We are now located at a main transfer point of many trolley and bus lines, as well as the Broad Street Subway line. This makes it much easier for our lot owners to drop into the office personally to make their monthly payments. It makes it more accessible for our salesmen also, as m this location they have unlimited parking facilities on wide streets, and the office is closer to their fields of operations.

I have just mentioned here about our salesmen. That is one big job I had to do, and still have to do for that matter. Not having had a sales force here for ten years I had to start from scratch, building up sales material and getting sales pictures for our kits, which in itself was no easy thing to do, as the winter continued late in Philadelphia this year, and I had to wait until the trees began to have at least a sign of foliage upon them.

I did not wait until this sales material had been completed to start hiring salesmen. In fact, I ran an Ad for salesmen even before my new office had been redecorated completely. This first Ad brought in so many applicants, that I was forced to buy and install the salesroom furniture within 24 hours, as I had to start conducting a sales school immediately. Twenty men answered that advertisement in a City which I had been told by several that the cemetery business had been exploited to death, and that salesmen would run from the sight of a cemetery Ad. I had been told moreover, that it would be impossible to hire any new men if they were not given an advance or drawing account. That these two statements were fallacies is proven by the fact that out of the 20 men who answered this Cemetery Ad, 15 became salesmen for us. Not a one of these men has ever been given a cent in advances or, drawing accounts. Some of you may be interested in knowing just how this Ad read. In our City, the Philadelphia Inquirer insists that the nature of employment and manner of remuneration therefore must be specifically mentioned in the Ad. I quote for you this advertisement:


Analyze these advantages enjoyed exclusively by our new Sales Force!

(1) We furnish BONA-FIDE LEADS. No canvassing necessary.
(2) Prestige of 42 years continuous service to Philadelphians, thousands of owners.
(3) Superior quality and beauty.
(4) Prices today but a fraction of value. You will sell on rising market.
(5) Extensive improvement program just starting.
(6) Over one million Philadelphians do not own. They should buy NOW, before need arises.
(7) Experience not required. You will be given intelligent training and cooperation in 1940 cemetery merchandising.
(8) Unlimited earnings thru generous commissions and advancement possibilities for lifetime career.
(9) No dull seasons. No samples to carry. No credit turn-downs.
(10) Sales force just starting. Get in on ground floor.

Your appearance, personality, and character must be in keeping with the dignity of our proposition. Apply Monday only to:

Beury Building
3701 N. Broad Street

I think the reason that it has been an easy matter for us to hire good men on a straight commission basis, is the fact that our proposition creates enthusiasm in their minds and in their efforts. It has always been said that “Anticipation is greater than realization” and we are fortunate that we are just at the start of our improvement program instead of having to sell a cemetery that is completely finished. Enthusiasm is always a vital factor in selling any commodity, and it is especially true of Cemetery Property, where you can draw such a splendid word picture of the beauty that is there and the beauty that is to come, the romance and sentiment of a cemetery that is designed for the living.

Here is a true story of what happened to one of our salesmen, in the first week of our sales force's existence: An 89 year old Aunt of his died and he was at a local funeral establishment waiting for the funeral serv¬ices to start. In his conversation with the funeral director he told him, in great detail, of his new connection at Forest Hills, and just what Forest Hills was going to do in the way of improvements. He evidently did a good job in selling this funeral director on Forest Hills. There were only ¬two cars besides the hearse and as the funeral procession got under way, our salesman noted the fact that it passed by the highway where it should have turned off, to go to the cemetery where the interment services were to be held. Instead, the procession continued right out to Forest Hills, and pulled up beside an open grave there which had been made ready for another interment service. It was then, and only .then, that the funeral director realized that his mind had been filled so full of Forest Hills, that he had driven there instead of to the other cemetery. It was fortunate for his reputation that the funeral party consisted only of the immediate family of the Forest Hills salesman.

On the books of the company are the names of over 5000 lot owners, representing over 4000 burials. During the period of years which had elapsed since these owners had purchased, many had moved away; in many cases the complete families had died out. During all those years I do not think they ever received a general mailing from the company on any subject whatsoever. Naturally, I wanted to acquaint them with the detailed plans which we were to carry out for their benefit, as well as to let them know about the new management. With this idea in mind, I engaged Homer Rodeheaver to come to Philadelphia to conduct a Lot Owners Meeting on May 25, in one of our large down town auditoriums. I sent a general mailing out to these 5000 names announcing the Homer Rodeheaver Meeting, and over half of these letters were returned to us as undeliverable. This mailing, however, was the means of our securing many new addresses for our records. I used the Post office plan, Form No. 3547, which applies to multi-mailing of 3rd class mail matter. The envelope which was mailed on 1½¢ postage bore this inscription: "Return postage guaranteed: Postmaster: If addressee has moved and new ad¬dress is known, notify sender on Form 3547, postage for which is guaranteed." By this method the Postmaster returned to us a post card containing the new address. On the 2500 or so letters which were re¬turned as undeliverable, we continued our checking further thru the funeral directors, asking them to advise the present address of survivors if it were known to them. In this way we received the correct address of many of these families. Unfortunately, we still have many names on our books which we cannot locate, and I am praying and hoping that some day. In the future, a new City Directory will be issued in Philadel¬phia. None has been issued in the last 5 years, and so far, no one has any definite idea if one will ever be issued again. We of course have used the telephone directory to trace the phone subscribers.

The Homer Rodeheaver Meeting attracted over 600 lot owners on a rainy Saturday evening which was the only date on which I could book Homer. It created genuine enthusiasm. Quite a few Funeral Directors were also present that evening, as they too had been sent an invitation for this meeting. The lot owners were told that night of our plans for improvements and rehabilitation, and they were also told that they were expected to help in the sale of lots, as the more lots that were sold would mean more improvements would be made. It was pointed out to them that three - parties would benefit from every lot that was sold to their friends and relatives:

First: The lot owners themselves would greatly benefit, as the value of their lots would increase according to the additional money spent in the cemetery with the additional beauty and desirability thus created.

Second: The cemetery would benefit as their own unsold property would greatly increase in value, due to these improvements.

Third: Their friends or relatives would benefit by an immediate purchase as they would be in position to buy at ground floor prices, as these prices would continue to advance, as the improvements proceeded from time to time.

Our salesmen are following up the families representing the 4000 burials at the Park by means of the Historical Record, with which most of you are familiar. On every one of these calls the salesman is supposed to conduct a miniature Homer Rodeheaver Meeting, pointing out the many improvements from which they will benefit as lot owners, and also calling to their attention the other parties who will benefit from additional sales to their friends and relatives. Such a method is followed in our contacts with visitors to the cemetery, and also to those who attend interment services. It is quite interesting to note the results obtained by the various types of salesmen in following up these Historical Records. Some of them become ideal census takers. They turn in a complete Historical Record of the deceased in flawless handwriting, with every question fully answered thereon. Some of them in listing the surviving relatives of the deceased are too timid or negligent to ask as to whether or not those surviving relatives own cemetery property themselves. Other salesmen by their sympathetic listening, by their enthusiastic presentation of our plans for beautification, are very successful in securing the wholehearted cooperation of our owners and their actual physical aid in helping them to sell property to the Uncle Johns and Brother Harrys listed by them on these records.

I will not go into great detail about the beautiful Memorial Day program we had at Forest Hills. It is interesting to state, however, that in spite of great difficulties, this program turned out to be a great success. It was the first of May before I had an opportunity to even think or make plans for such a service here. No such service had ever been held at Forest Hills. In fact, there was not even a flag staff of any description, I started contacting the various veterans’ Posts adjacent to our cemetery, and I found that for years each post had been going to certain specified cemeteries in their area to hold their Memorial Day services. Everywhere I went I was greeted with the information that it was too late for their posts to change any plans; therefore, after starting at the bottom I decided to continue at the top. I introduced myself to the District Commander of the American Legion of our District and received an invitation from him to attend the monthly meeting of the Commanders of the 23 posts of that district; which was held the first week in May. At that Meeting I told these Commanders my story briefly, that I would like to have a Memorial Flag Staff dedicated on Memorial Day, and while I realized that their Posts could not attend this dedicatory service, that I would at least like to have their colors represented by volunteer delegates from each Post.

The next week I presented a similar invitation at the Monthly District Meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The result was that our first Memorial Day service had a good turnout from the 23 posts of the Legion, and the 16 Posts of the V.F.W., with many of the Commanders them¬selves attending. They were so inspired and pleased by the beauty of the site where we erected the Memorial Flag Staff, that it was decided then and there that Forest Hills would be the official cemetery for the entire District Memorial Day Joint services in the future. All of the Metropolitan and Community Newspapers gave publicity to this service, the first time in many years that the name of Forest Hills had been mentioned by any Newspaper other than in the obituary columns.

Due to the late spring it took a long time for me to secure suitable films in color, of the beauties of the Cemetery, Late in May we began our Moving Picture Travelogue Lectures in the Churches and Lodges, and as the fall season now opens we are booked extensively for the showings. As I have spoken to you before from this platform on Movie Lectures, you know how sold I am on them as an aid to sales, so it will not be necessary to go into this phase of sales promotion here. If you are not familiar with these Moving Picture Lectures I suggest that after the meeting you pay Roy Hatten $5.00 for a copy of the 1937 year book containing this information.

We have not as yet installed our amplified music but expect to do so in the near future. I perhaps should not mention this fact here at this meeting, as I imagine after this talk I will be besieged by the musical exhibitors at this convention. I, however, do state definitely here that while we have not as yet decided on what musical installation we will make, that you can bet it will be thru one of our exhibitors. The Chapel Tent and the Power Lawn Mower, which I mentioned earlier in this talk, were bought from exhibitors at our previous conventions, and I make it a strict rule to favor our exhibitors wherever and whenever possible. Again, I will not go into detail as to how we will secure prospects through our Sacred Concerts. The 1938 year book covers this subject thoroughly. And again, you may get a copy of that book from Roy for another five dollar bill. Perhaps after all, Roy's offer of $15.00 for a complete set of year books will be your best bet.

After our mailing list had been brought to date, we found that there were over 1000 unmarked graves. Thru Bill Williams' cooperation we immediately got out a letter to these 1000 families, advising them that bronze memorials could be installed anywhere in the cemetery, and giving them a sales talk on the use of bronze. Our salesmen in their daily calls with the Historical Records have the privilege of selling Bronze Memorials for which they receive a commission of 10%. While our salesmen are not Memorial salesmen, it does give them an opportunity to pick up' a little expense money through this incidental selling. These families will be systematically followed up, also, by future letters. Quite a few profit¬able orders have already been received for Bronze Memorials, but we have not scratched the surface as yet. In my previous connection at Michigan Memorial Park, it was quite a simple matter to sell bronze memorials, as they either I had to install bronze or nothing at all. Here we are competing with every monument and memorial dealer in the City, and we have to overcome a lot of prejudice that has already been built up in our lot owners' minds. We find that the more bronze memorials we install the easier it is for us to sell additional ones, so I feel that the hardest part of this particular job is already over. I do not want to go on record as favoring the installation of bronze against that of granite. I do want to go on record, however, in saying that by selling bronze we receive a selling profit ourselves, and do not have to be content with only an installation charge. Figure for yourselves a potential average profit of $25.00 each on 1000 unmarked graves and you will see that that total amounts to $25,000.00 possible profit for the cemetery. Multiply that by 400 burials a year and that will give you an additional future profit of $10,000.00 per year.

In this short space of time allotted to me, I could give you only a few of the highlights instituted since last spring. Inasmuch as there is not in this whole audience a possibility of selling one lot in Forest Hills, I am not going to attempt to tell you about the future plans we have in mind for our own particular cemetery. I do hope that if any of you pass through Philadelphia, or any way near Philadelphia, on your way home from this convention, or at any time in the future, that you will drop in my office, and we will then continue the discussion which you and I have had this morning. I know that you will be impressed with the beauty of Forest Hills when I show it to you then. I do not advise you to have any of your salesmen stop by to see it, as they might do what I did last March - move to Philadelphia and become a living part of the beauty that is Forest Hills.

From the publication:
“1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers’ Guide”
ACOA 11th Annual Convention & Exposition
Hotel Statler, Buffalo, New York
September 8-11, 194