These are tough times for cemeteries. Too many planned on a steady revenues from grave sales, and have not trusted enough funds for future maintenance expenses. Grave sale revenues have been dramatically cut by the public’s acceptance of cremation. Subsequent to the Great Recession of 2008, many of our funeral home clients reported a significant uptick in their cremation rates. Families could no longer afford to spend $12,000 for a funeral that included a casket and a grave space. Families cited the economic downturn as justification for spending $2,000 on a cremation and taking Mom’s ashes home in an urn. Cemeteries are frequently left completely out of the family’s decisions about the disposition of cremated remains
The Great Recession also undercut cemeteries’ reliance on trust revenues. Both preneed merchandise trusts and permanent maintenance care fund trusts had been income oriented and invested primarily in fixed income securities. Mortgage backed securities were an investment staple for both types of trust, and most cemeteries were accustom to pulling all net income from their trusts. This resulted in many cemetery trusts being maintained at their minimum statutory requirement. When the home mortgage bubble burst, values of mortgaged back bond funds dropped and many cemetery trusts ‘went under water’.
A 2016 news article about a troubled New York cemetery reported that more than two-thirds of that state’s regulated cemeteries are underfunded. (Grand View Cemetery: Buried in Costs) An increasing number of New York cemeteries are turning to their local municipalities for help, but New York state law restricts the assistance that can be given. That has led cities and towns to reject requests to take over ‘abandoned’ cemeteries. The liability with assuming a failing cemetery can be substantial. The state of New York has agreed to chip in $2 million for the repair of two mausoleums that had fallen into disrepair. With regard to the Whispering Maples Memorial Gardens’ mausoleums, the cemetery owners had not walked away, but rather could no longer cover the growing expenses to maintain the mausoleums. The owners stopped making deposits to the care fund and the preneed trust, and instead applied consumer funds to daily operations. The New York cemetery regulator was criticized for not interceding years earlier. But sometimes there are few visible signs that the cemetery is in trouble.
Rural cemeteries like Filer Cemetery in Idaho are frequently ran by volunteers that are motivated by a duty owed to relatives buried there. But running a cemetery has become more than they bargained for. As families embrace cremation, fewer are taking their loved one’s ashes to the cemetery. That means few people to volunteer for the board of trustees, to provide maintenance or to manage the cemetery. Such cemeteries are often exempted by state law from maintaining care funds, and lack capital to invest in columbariums and niches. As with Filer Cemetery, many such burial grounds run out of volunteers and resources and eventually become the responsibility of municipalities and counties. (Filer Cemetery: The Sexton can no longer do the job alone and Filer Cemetery: The cemetery district could proceed to ballot)
It is a tall order to expect the state regulator to spot which troubled cemetery needs intervention, and then to transfer control to the local municipality.