Best Cemeteries – Which Type is Best For You?

Leaving aside for a moment abandoned or inactive cemeteries, there are basically four types of cemeteries. First are what may be termed commercial cemeteries, next those run by church or fraternal organizations, then government owned and, finally, small private cemeteries, usually based on a family or small group of families. Each has strengths and weaknesses.

Legal Structure: In this part of the country, being relatively recently settled, cemeteries were (usually) originally created as such from land originally used for some other purpose. The owner at the time deeded over, or dedicated, some portion of their land. At this point a “fork” was created that has continued to today. Who owns the land, the cemetery grounds? The original owner probably transferred it by general warranty deed to a church, civic organization or fraternal organization. Ownership, and usually operation, continued on under the control of a board taken from members of the church or organization. Although the cemetery might well accept burials from “outsiders”, it was set up originally for the use of the members. Thus there was an interest in ongoing operation over generations by the families of those actually buried there.

Beginning in the 1900 – 1920 period (plus or minus a few years), with the increasing urbanization of the country, promoters,  speculators and business people began to get involved in the cemetery business. Either taking over a preexisting cemetery, or, starting a new one, the purpose of these business people was strictly profit making. At this point the deed to the cemetery grounds was often placed in the hands of a lot owners association. The “lot owners association” and hence the cemetery was controlled by a board, the members of whom were appointed and completely controlled by the cemetery promoters themselves.

This fork in the trail of ownership has continued to this day. On one hand a cemetery could be controlled by a board, representative of the families of those buried there. On the other hand it could be controlled by a board representative of a sham lot owners association but actually controlled by profit seeking promoters, speculators and business people. Unless the cemetery deed, as shown in the recorders office, is actually in the name of an individual (corporate or person) the actual legal ownership probably rests in the hands of the association.

If you are really curious, or dissatisfied with the operation of the cemetery where you own space, you can investigate whether the people running the cemetery and claiming ownership of it are actually shown with the recorder of deeds in your county. If they are not, the actual legal owner will be whomever (or whatever as in the case of an association) is shown. I’ve sometimes been curious as to what would happen if someone seeking to represent the association shown on county records as the owner were to assert control. Is there a formal agreement between the lot owners association and the people running and claiming to own the cemetery? If so, as a lot owner you have every right to see it. Interesting possibilities.

In any event, the chain of ownership then passes to the individual grave or lot owner. This is sometimes conveyed by deed (best) and sometimes conveyed by a certificate for what is called Right of Burial. As a practical matter both grant the owner the ability to use a given space. After all, even if conveyed by deed, you can’t build a house on a 120” by 40” (typical size of one grave) piece of ground. It’s strictly for burying. The cemetery owner through a board, or an operator through a lot owners association, have the right to set reasonable rules for the use of the grave space.

Commercial: The best known, and granddaddy of commercial cemeteries, is Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. I spent an entire day there once. If you want to see the cemetery, rent or download the movie The Loved One which was filmed at Forest Lawn during its heyday in 1964. Starring Jonathan Winters (playing 2 roles) and a host of character actors, there are is a lot of “inside” humor. There are a couple of pale imitations in St. Louis, mostly fallen on hard times. Commercial cemeteries often come to the attention of the general public because of the extensive promotions and sales programs they engage in. There’s nothing wrong with that, but all that costs money that the public has to pay for in generally higher prices. The problem with commercial cemeteries is that the motivation of the operators is strictly the profit they expect to make out of it. Often money was invested in increasingly grandiose decoration, features and buildings and is designed to appeal to the upper classes. As these cemeteries age, the costs of keeping them up are increasing while the class of customers is going down. So long as the original family stays in control of it, and has some sense of its responsibility for it, its inevitable downward slide should remain slow. In addition, many of the areas where these cemeteries are located are in declining neighborhoods and it becomes more difficult to lure the more upscale customers. Last it is necessary to consider the level of so-called trust funds that have built up over the decades. If the operators of a commercial cemetery are content with a decent, but modest, income and put aside money, to be added to a large already existing fund, a commercial cemetery can remain viable into the future. However, you will always have a certain “conflict of interest” between lot owners and the operators. If you own space in a commercial type cemetery, and you have any concern about the future of that cemetery, find out at the recorders office who actually owns it. If it is an association of lot owners, you, as a lot owner, have every right to see any agreements that allow the operator to run the cemetery. Take an active interest in and participate in electing the lot owner association board. At the very least, you have the right to know who the board members (the association board members, not the operating company board) are and can contact them.

Church & Fraternal: This type of cemetery ranges widely in size from a small cemetery of a few acres attached to a church in what is or was semi rural through many, many acres in the heart of the metropolitan area. A cemetery operated and controlled by a church or fraternal organization is more apt to be focused on the function for which a cemetery is created in the first place, to wit, a burying ground. Even if, as is sometimes the case, there is a certain “commercialization” of large church owned cemeteries there still exists, at its core, the intent of taking care of the members. Because there is an interest by church members, fraternal members there is an ongoing impulse to keep it up. There is somewhat less likelihood of a build up of trust funds for future maintenance (although one local church owned cemetery has a very substantial maintenance fund) there is less likelihood what ever funds are there will be looted.

Municipal: A government owned cemetery, ranging in size from a large veteran’s cemetery owned by the Federal Government through a small local cemetery owned by a city or county is controlled by politicians. Excepting veterans cemeteries, because there is revenue from the operations which somewhat offsets expenses, and, because politicians are concerned about reelection these type of cemeteries are most likely to be taken care of into the future. City residents complaining about maintenance at a city owned cemetery aren’t something the local politician wants to mess with. In this era of government cut backs and budget reductions grass mowing at a local city owned cemetery will be one of the last things cut – plus it creates jobs for local residents.

Private, Family Cemeteries: These are usually very small (one I know of in Kentucky where a great-grandfather is buried is one acre). There is usually no formal provision for future maintenance and it is expected that families of the deceased will volunteer care and upkeep. There are exceptions of course. I suspect the Rockefeller Foundation would ensure any Rockefeller family cemetery is kept up. One advantage of this type is cost – usually minimal, perhaps free, and the grave might be dug by a neighbor for little or nothing.

So Which is Best For You?

  • First, realize that you have a choice. There are different types of cemeteries with differing long term prospects, differing costs, differing “rules” as to what type of headstone you can put up, differing motivations of whoever owns or controls it.

  • Second, realize that just because you have family at one cemetery doesn’t mean you can’t use another cemetery for yourself or other family members. While I don’t recommend this for the average person because of the emotional strain and financial cost, realize that if you insist on keeping your family together in death, you can easily disinter them from the less desirable cemetery and rebury in one more to your liking – we actually do that type of work.

  • Third, realize the strengths and weaknesses of the various types of cemeteries. Commercial cemeteries are not always the most expensive – a few offer what I call paupers burials at an extremely low, money losing price. They may then turn around and require the family to come in to “confirm” the location (or some such nonsense) for the purpose of “upgrading” (some people have referred to it as bait and switch) them. Or, they may require a much more expensive type of headstone. But you don’t have to participate – if you just want to bury cheap this might be your best bet.

  • Fourth, realize that there is sometimes a conflict between the funeral home and the cemetery when a burial is arranged and when money is very, very limited. If there is, say, $5,000 to spend on a complete burial the funeral home would rather you spend $4,000 with him and the rest at the cemetery, rather than you spend $3,000 with him and $2,000 at the cemetery. Please Note: This is NOT a criticism of the funeral director, just a statement of the economically obvious.

  • Fifth, and perhaps most important over the long run, remember that the cemetery is, so to speak, forever. The funeral itself lasts but a relatively short time – the burial will be there 10, 20, 30 and more years into the future. So give due consideration to this part of a burial.

Note: This is the first in an extended series of anticipated articles over the coming months/years and ranging from such topics as the economics of the funeral business through what actually happens in a cremation to horror stories and rumors (and how true they really are). I am also considering an article giving my opinion as to various cemeteries in the St. Louis area – anyone interested in that? If you ind this information of value to you, or, you have criticisms or suggestions let me know.