In relation to many of its peers, Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery could be labeled progressive. Oak Ridge maintains both an endowed care trust and a preneed trust. In contrast, a substantial number of the country’s cemeteries have neither. The fact that Oak Ridge Cemetery is owned and operated by the City of Springfield, Illinois, makes the cemetery even more remarkable. Few municipal cemeteries have such funds, and instead, must be subsidized by taxpayers for operating funds. Despite the foresight of Oak Ridge’s board of directors, the cemetery has had to resort to “netting” the past few years to make ends meet. They have done so to the tune of almost a million dollars, and Springfield’s Mayor is being advised that drastic action is necessary.
The Mayor’s attorney blames Oak Ridge’s board of directors for bad investments and netting deposits, and recommends that the control of the cemetery be changed. With the increase in cremations (and the decline in burials), the Oak Ridge board failed to adapt, and instead, spent the funds that should have been contributed to the trusts. To make up for the decline in trust contributions, the board took more risks with trust investments, which exposed the trusts to the market declines of 2008. The combination of netting consumer payments and investment declines put Oak Ridge in a deep hole. And now, the Mayor’s attorney thinks it’s time for a change in management, and for the cemetery to start living within its means. Sounds like sage advice, but it’s not very practical.
Turning Oak Ridge over to the city’s park and recreational department will only ensure a decline in the cemetery’s operations. While the cemetery’s board may be guilty of staying with their old business plan too long, those individuals are more familiar with the operation of a cemetery than those city employees who oversee Springfield’s parks.
Regarding ‘bad’ investments, the Mayor’s attorney suggests the cemetery board should have stayed conservative. The problem with that advice is that the 2008 market crash hit mortgage-backed securities the hardest, which happens to be the ‘bread and butter’ of most cemetery trust funds. The fact is that most cemetery trusts may be too heavily invested in fixed income, and the need is to diversify their investments (as opposed to ‘going conservative’). (In that the Mayor’s attorney is the same individual who defended the IFDA master trust’s investment in key man insurance, this criticism rings a little hollow.)
While Springfield needs to make the Oak Ridge board more accountable, those members should be given the opportunity to develop a new business plan for the cemetery. The decline in traditional burials is inevitable, and cemeteries must plan accordingly. While the costs of the traditional funeral and burial are a leading factor to the rise in cremations, cemeteries need to evaluate the prices charged for their interment rights and services. They also need to evaluate the need for marketing. One such opportunity is to market to the consumer who has already chosen cremation. Another opportunity is to form marketing alliances with funeral homes.
Or, the Mayor could pull in the reigns and allow the taxpayer to foot the bill.