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How Do Cemeteries Really Make Money?

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Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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How do cemeteries make money? It’s an honest question, especially when you consider that a good portion of their customers are dead. When your main commodity is space for graves and your land is limited, that means your income will eventually have limitations. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Some may not like to think about money when they think of cemeteries or funeral homes. We don’t want to think about costs when it comes to end-of-life care for our loved ones. We just want to do what’s best and right for them. But, like any business, cemeteries must make money in order to stay in business.

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Burials, Plots, and Grave Markers

The most recognizable elements of a cemetery are its grave markers and burials. Pop culture has typically shown cemeteries via funerals, where someone is being buried and their grave marker is erected.

Others may show even just the lines of gravestones and markers, where people come by to visit their deceased loved ones. It’s these symbols and rituals that help bring in revenue for cemeteries, among a few other things.

Burials and other interments

The most obvious way cemeteries make money is by selling burial plots or spaces in mausoleums or columbariums. Cemeteries sell plots at the time of need after a death. They also sell them to those who want to plan ahead. 

If there is a specific cemetery you’d like to be buried or interred in, you’d do well to make arrangements in advance. Especially if you want your family’s gravesites together. You never know when a death will occur – it could be years from now or next month.

Plots and right of interment

Unsurprisingly, burial plots are the big sellers in cemeteries. And while we refer to it as “buying a burial plot,” what we are actually doing is buying the right of interment. We’re purchasing the “right to be buried in a particular space, whether a full-body grave, mausoleum crypt, or a niche for ashes.” The property still belongs to the cemetery.

Did you know?

The large mausoleums in cemeteries are known as public or community mausoleums. They are open to anyone as space permits. Inside a mausoleum, the small spaces where urns containing cremated remains are placed are called niches.

By contrast however, freestanding structures containing only niches for urns are called columbariums. You may see them as large walls with separate niches for cremated remains.

The actual burial or interment has its own cost separate from the purchase of the grave plot or space. Some of these spaces in walls where a body in a casket is entombed are called crypts.

The other costs regarding burials and other interments include:

  • The opening and closing a grave (digging and then later refilling the grave)
  • The opening and resealing a public or private mausoleum
  • The opening and resealing a niche in a columbarium or mausoleum

Burial vaults

Another expense at a cemetery is the purchase of an outer vault for the casket to be contained in. Do you have to buy a vault? Generally, yes. Most cemeteries have rules or regulations that require the use of vaults. 

While many people may think the main purpose of a burial vault is to just protect the casket, which they do. But that’s only part of it. Vaults are mainly to keep the ground from sinking in around the casket. It’s actually a money saver for the cemetery because there is less maintenance required to keep the grounds level. 

According to Ralf Heckenbach of Memorials.com, burial vaults are “built to be strong enough so as to withstand the weight of heavy maintenance equipment without causing any damage to the casket.” Level or unlevel ground can also have an effect on grave markers. When the ground is level, gravestones will stay in place. Unlevel ground is also a danger to cemetery visitors, who can lose their footing and possibly get injured.

There are small vaults that are made for urn burials, too. For the record, urns don’t have to be interred in only niches or columbariums. They can be buried just like caskets. 

Grave markers

Many cemeteries sell grave markers of all kinds through their business. It only makes sense to do so when you specialize in graves. Grave markers are also offered on a pre-need basis or at the time when someone dies.

Cemeteries offer all sorts of grave markers, from the traditional gravestones to large monuments.

Examples of some types of grave markers offered:

  • Upright headstones
  • Flat lawn stones (often used in memorial parks as their main marker style)
  • Bronze markers or sculptures
  • Granite sculptures
  • Plaques
  • Granite or marble benches

Another cost associated with the purchase of a headstone or other style of grave marker is the setting of the marker at the grave site. Granite and other grave marker materials are seriously heavy and often take special equipment to set them properly at a grave site.

Perpetual Care Funds

What are perpetual care funds? In professional terms, these funds “are monies placed in a trust by cemeteries to generate income to cover cemetery maintenance in perpetuity.” They are also referred to as endowment care funds.

In simpler terms, a perpetual care fund allows a cemetery to save a specific amount of money from sales. This money is used in order to keep it going for decades to come. These funds are important because no one wants to bury or inter their loved ones in a location with a questionable future.

You can consider it like a 401(K) for the business. It’s especially important if a cemetery runs out of space. If there are no plots or niches available to sell, the cemetery should still be able to run on the savings from the perpetual care fund.

The basics:

Cemeteries generally take out 5 to 15 percent or more of sales for their perpetual care fund. These funds are used for cemetery maintenance as a whole, not just for one grave or a plot. Guidelines and regulations for cemeteries are made on the state level (therefore, the regulations for those in Maine may be different than those in Illinois).

Did you know?

As far as the law is concerned, according to the law office of Stimmel, Stimmel & Roeser, there are two types of cemeteries – private and public.

  • Private cemeteries are for specific a specific family or families; they may also be ones used by a “small portion of the community”
  • Public cemeteries are open for the use of the community in general
  • Cemeteries, therefore, are based on usage rather than cemetery ownership
  • Not-for-profit cemeteries, under this law, would fall under public

Services

Many cemeteries offer services beyond burials, other interments, burial vaults, and grave markers. These are other ways a cemetery can make an income.

Special maintenance

Many cemeteries offer extra maintenance add-ons for grave sites. For example, Lakeview Cemetery in Erie, Ohio, offers lot plantings for flower beds and ivy beds, grass watering, plant pruning, debris cleaning, fertilizer applications, and others. 

Cemeteries can also offer headstone or monument cleaning, which is excellent because they will know the proper ways to clean the stone and other materials. They may offer a less-involved cleaning and polishing of a grave marker as well.

Flowers and arrangements

Some cemeteries have fresh flower shops on their premises. Others sell silk flower arrangements made specifically for placement on graves. Depending on the rules and regulations of a particular cemetery, they may allow artificial or real flowers as decorations. 

To offer floral arrangements of either kind directly through the cemetery is a service often appreciated by the loved ones of someone whose final resting place is located there. They can either purchase the floral arrangements (including wreaths and grave blankets) directly while on the premises, or they can buy them online or through the office to have the flowers placed for them. This can be useful for those who live out of town.

On-site funeral homes and crematories 

There are cemeteries who offer “one-stop shopping” by having a funeral home on the premises. Hollywood Forever in Hollywood, California, has a “beautiful, historic, full-service funeral home and chapel,” according to their website. They also offer cremation services. They believe offering the convenience of having all services in one place “provides families with a sense of comfort and ease during the memorial process.”

Cemeteries like Laurel Memorial Park in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., have their own crematories. According to their site, “In the state of New Jersey, only cemeteries are permitted to operate a crematory.” The cemeteries do work with licensed funeral directors, though.

Pet burials

It is generally against cemetery regulations for animals to be buried in a human cemetery or memorial park. Some cemeteries have adjacent pet cemeteries, like Oakdale Memorial Gardens’ Love of Animals Petland in Davenport, Iowa.

Partnering with Businesses

Rather than running their own extra services, there are also cemeteries that partner with other businesses. While they share the profits with these partners, they still earn an extra income but without the need to run the business end on their own. 

Many of the services listed above can be taken care of by a third party business, leaving the day-to-day operations as the cemetery’s focus.

Events and activities

It’s more and more common for cemeteries to hold special events on their premises as a way to make money. It also encourages awareness of their services and to let the community know that they still have plenty of space for burials and interments. 

Examples of cemeteries and the events they offer:

  • Laurel Hill Cemetery (Philadelphia, Pa.) - Themed walking tours, presentations, workshops, yoga, Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies
  • Hollywood Forever Cemetery (Hollywood, Cali.) - Walking tours, movie nights, annual Day of the Dead festival, concerts
  • Crownhill Cemetery (Indianapolis, Ind.) - Walking tours, driving tours, music, 5K run/walk
  • Evergreen Memorial Cemetery (Bloomington, Ill.) - Annual Pet Extravaganza, Scavenger Hunt
  • Historic Oakland Cemetery (Atlanta, Ga.) - Walking tours, plant sales, private tours, private events 

Making Money to Serve You

As you can see, there are a number of services that cemeteries offer the public. Some, like the occasional flower arrangement, may not generate a huge amount of income, but everything comes together to keep a cemetery in working order.

If you do a little “digging” into cemeteries, you’ll learn about the variety of services they offer. While many of them are exactly what you expect, you may be surprised to learn about what a cemetery can do for you to make a difficult time in your life much easier.


Sources

  1. “Guide to Cemetery Purchases.” Funeral Consumers Alliance. funerals.org/?consumers=consumers-guide-cemetery-purchases/ 
  2. “How Important Are Perpetual Care Funds for Cemeteries?” MKS&H. mksh.com/how-important-are-perpetual-care-funds-for-cemeteries/ 
  3. “The Basic Laws Pertaining to Cemeteries.” Stimmel, Stimmel & Roeser. www.stimmel-law.com/en/articles/basic-laws-pertaining-cemeteries 
  4. Samuelson, Tracey. “How do cemeteries make money?” Marketplace. 13 October 2014. www.marketplace.org/2014/10/13/how-do-cemeteries-make-money/
  5. Heckenbach, Ralf. “Why Do Cemeteries Insist on Burial Vaults?” March 18, 2013. Memorials.com. www.memorials.com/blog/why-do-cemeteries-insist-on-burial-vaults/  
  6. “How to Buy a Grave Marker.” Funeralwise.com. www.funeralwise.com/plan/funeral-products/grave-markers/how-to-buy/
  7. Funeral Home, Hollywood Forever. hollywoodforever.com/funeral-home/ 
  8. Laurel Memorial Park and Crematory. www.laurelmemorialpark.com/crematory.html