In rural areas, cemeteries are rarely a problem. Communities have them, churches have them, and many families have their own. Likewise many Jewish communities have their own cemeteries, along with a committee which runs it. In our cities, however, cemetery space is getting rare . . . and expensive. Per a recent phone conversation with a cemetery owner in eastern New Jersey, there are less than 10,000 available burial plots left within a thirty mile radius of New York City, and you can bet they are going for a premium price since the NYC death rate is several times that annually.

Reduced to its basic definition, a cemetery is ". . . land set aside for the interment of the dead." Viewed from a purely capitalistic angle, however, a cemetery is real estate. Valuable real estate. Figure about two feet by six feet per grave, toss in another foot around it for spacing, plus access roads and walkways and you'll still come up with over a thousand graves per acre. Now multiply that by $750-$3,000 average sales price and you'll see just how valuable that real estate really is. Oh, and add another $500 per site for the burial vault, $500 per site for opening and closing fees, and yet another $1200 per site for monuments. Now do the math. Whatever else it is, a cemetery is business . . . big business.

Memorial & Funeral Societies

The best way to learn what is available and what it will cost is to join a local memorial society, or as they are sometimes called, funeral society or funeral cooperative. These societies are non-profit organizations which monitor cemetery and funeral home prices and, the more active ones anyway, sometimes negotiate special rates for their members. Be leery of any that share office space or a receptionist with or in a funeral home, of course, but this is rare. Membership is minimal and the benefits can be considerable. To find a society near you, check our LINKS page coming up later for FAMSA, the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America. Beyond local issues, FAMSA is also the prime consumer group lobbying congress and watching out for the public interest today. Tell them we sent you.

When to Buy

If you go burial plot shopping well in advance of needing one, you can be more choosy and make your own deal. The sales staff, which are some of the most tenacious and greedy there is, will know this. You are shopping for a little plot of real estate at this point. If, however, you wait until you need a plot, you'll be shopping for the answer to a pressing problem, and you can bet the staff will know this too. Since the staff most places are paid a hefty commission, perhaps as much as 40-50%, there is usually room to negotiate. This may not be true with the corporate-owned cemeteries, however, since much of their policies are set at the company headquarters and they have the resources to wait you out. Ask if they are corporate-owned before you even visit, and expect a bevy of tricky rules and restrictions if they are.

Bait and Switch

Don't be surprised to find sales literature in your mailbox or Sunday newspaper listing Family Specials, Veterans Specials, or something similar. Starting prices listed may be for the single plot available at that price, and will likely be an orphan plot at that. An orphan plot, by the way, is usually a double plot bought years ago whose owner remarried or moved away or elected cremation instead of burial. As soon as you see it, the move will start to "Let's not put your loved one among stranges, when for a few dollars more he can be over in our deluxe Serenity Gardens." Before you know it you have a six-space family plot and a bill for several thousand dollars more than you intended to spend.

The TRUE Costs

I know a cemetery that literally gives away burial plots to qualified veterans, and makes over $3,000 on each one. How? By selling additional plots to the family, by charging outrageous fees for opening-and-closing the grave, requiring a particular model of burial vault be used, and by setting monuments requirements that only their stone yard can fill. See The Affordable Funeral for a complete run-down on all the ins and outs of cemeteries, including how you can buy a plot for half-price, or less. For our purposes it is sufficient to know that you will most likely have to buy a burial vault, and that you'll be told some pretty creative reasons why.

No state in the union REQUIRES the use of a burial vault or grave liner.

But virutally every for-profit cemetery does. You'll be told it's required by state statute, to protect the ground water run-off. Or that it's necessary to keep the earth from immediately crushing the casket (potentially true, no matter what fancy, high-gauge material used), or to help protect the remains from roots, water, space aliens, you name it. The only true functions of a burial vault are to increase profits for the seller (you can get them from either the funeral home or the cemetery, and may be able to make a deal providing both aren't owned by the same company), and to provide a low-maintenance mowing surface. If they start off telling you lies about this, they'll likely be lying about other things as well . . . walk.

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