What Is a Perpetual Care Cemetery? Definition + FAQs

Updated

You want any cemetery that contains the remains of a deceased loved one to stay in good condition. This means maintaining the grounds, keeping paths clear, and regularly cleaning the graves themselves. However, the money to support this care has to come from somewhere. 

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The funds used for repairs, maintenance, and upkeep of cemeteries refer to perpetual care. While public or private cemeteries operate a bit differently, public cemeteries rely on funds to afford long-term care. Each state has different laws about perpetual care (some require it) so families can end up feeling confused when trying to determine how much a burial plot costs.

What exactly is perpetual care, and what do cemeteries do with these funds? Individual cemeteries cover it and this guide will explore the definition of this fund as well as frequently asked questions. 

Perpetual Care Cemeteries Defined

In simple terms, perpetual care involves a fund created specifically to maintain cemetery grounds, mausoleums, crypts, and any other aspects of a cemetery. When families choose to have their loved ones buried at a specific cemetery, a percentage of the sale price goes towards the perpetual fund. This essentially creates an endowment the cemetery draws upon for years to come. 

Ultimately, this fund ensures the cemetery stays well maintained. While the family must upkeep individual graves, the cemetery sextons take great care in maintaining the landscaping, facilities, and so on all year long. 

What do perpetual care funds pay for?

Perpetual care funds are used to pay for a number of different things within each cemetery. These include:

  • Mowing the lawn
  • Maintaining pathways and seats
  • Creating visible signage
  • Securing the grounds
  • Preventing weather damage
  • Repairing graves 
  • Protecting the grounds against implement weather

Some cemeteries have separate funds for care and maintenance. This means one fund goes toward cemetery grounds while the other stays earmarked for individual gravesites. Individualized care for graves typically costs more. 

Difference between perpetual care cemeteries and other cemeteries

Not all cemeteries have perpetual care funds. In some states, the law requires them. However, you may face some misunderstandings regarding how these funds get used and the requirements. 

Perpetual care doesn’t typically exist at older cemeteries or cemeteries that no longer have space. For cemeteries over 50+ years old, perpetual care isn’t always possible or affordable. Some government, religious, or nonprofit groups might continue to pay for these plots — it isn’t guaranteed. 

Additionally, private cemeteries don’t usually need to have a perpetual care fund. The responsibility for caring for these grounds comes from the owner of the cemetery, whether that’s a church, family, or local group. Lastly, many new green cemeteries take a new approach to perpetual care to find new solutions. 

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Does Perpetual Care Actually Mean Forever?

One of the biggest misconceptions about perpetual care is that it lasts forever. In reality, that isn’t realistic or practical. 

Perpetual care was very inexpensive decades ago, in the 1960s and 1970s. The cost back then no longer covers the cost of basic services today, and that means it’s no longer possible to care for some cemeteries long term. In addition, low-income or low-cost cemeteries have a challenging time keeping up with rapidly growing costs and demands. 

This means that there’s no such thing as forever when it comes to perpetual care. Many modern cemeteries implement new rules to help solve this problem, such as charging families a yearly fee for care. In most cases, families sign a contract agreeing to a provided period of time for care. 

However, one of the questions to ask when buying a cemetery plot involves specific questions about how perpetual care helps the entire cemetery, not just a specific plot. In other words, individual graves might fall into various states of disrepair even with a reliable perpetual care fund. 

How Much Does Perpetual Care Typically Cost?

The cost of perpetual care varies. The price you pay depends on your particular location, the geography of the cemetery, and the package you choose. Each state has different laws about perpetual care, and most require between five percent and 30 percent of the purchase price to be put aside into a fund for care. 

Because the average cemetery plot runs between $2,000 and $5,000, the cost of perpetual care also varies. If the burial plot is $2,500, for example, in a state that requires 10% to be put aside for perpetual care, this costs an additional $250. 

Some cemeteries offer a flat-rate approach, often charging above the standard five percent to 30 percent for more comprehensive care. Cemeteries often offer an annual care fee. This usually includes more dedicated care for your loved one’s grave, such as regular grave plot cleanings. 

How Do You Find a Perpetual Care Cemetery?

Most functional cemeteries today offer some degree of perpetual care. It’s in the cemetery’s best interest to offer this type of service since it means it’s more affordable for them to upkeep their property long-term, so this isn’t hard to find in most states. 

First, familiarize yourself with your state’s perpetual care laws. This will help you determine what to expect. Next, talk to your funeral home about the best perpetual care cemeteries in your area. You can choose the provider best for you from there. 

Shop around for the right perpetual care cemetery. Legally, cemeteries must share pricing, fees, and added costs upfront. Though they might not include the cost with the typical burial plot pricing, don’t hesitate to ask about it as well as long-term upkeep fees. 

What Are the Alternatives to a Perpetual Care Cemetery?

You can find some alternatives to a perpetual care cemetery if you worry about the cost or long-term maintenance. Greener, eco-friendly options often offer the best alternative but explore this full list below. 

Private burial

If you bury a loved one on your private property, you don’t usually need to worry about perpetual care fees or costs. In many places, it’s completely legal to have a full-body burial on your property. Check with your state laws to determine if this is an option for your loved one. 

Cremation

Cremation, more affordable and straightforward than a burial, allows you to forget about long-term costs unless you choose to have the urn buried in a traditional cemetery. 

Otherwise, you can scatter the ashes, keep them in an urn, or use them to create a memorial diamond. Nowadays, cremation remains more popular than traditional burials. 

Green burial

A green burial, an eco-friendly alternative to a traditional burial, involves burial within a maintained cemetery placed within nature. A number of green cemeteries have spread across the country. 

Because the goal of a green burial means returning the body to nature, the burial doesn't involve unnecessary burial elements that won’t decompose naturally. The grave isn’t extensively maintained if it’s maintained at all, so no perpetual care cost usually exists. 

Donation

Donating your loved one’s body to science also eliminates the need to worry about perpetual care costs. Because you donate for medical research or education, you don't need to worry about costs at all. In the end, the organization pays for cremation at no cost to the family. 

Eternal reefs

Lastly, many individuals choose to bury their loved ones naturally below the ocean waves. Neptune Memorial Reefs use human ashes to create marine-safe reef structures. These involve building a sustainable, eco-friendly reef off the coast of Florida. Not only can families visit this reef in the future, but it also does a world of good. 

Understanding Long-Term Cemetery Care

Though we think of cemeteries as bridging gaps in time and history, they involve the same changes as any other piece of natural land. Environmental and cost concerns mean it’s not always possible to care for cemetery grounds forever, especially when space is an issue in most modern cemeteries. 

Perpetual care funds offer a solution that many cemeteries rely on but aren't perfect. There’s no such thing as “forever” when it comes to graves, and we’ve all seen what happens when cemeteries become ravaged by the elements. Ultimately, the burden falls on the family to understand the role of perpetual care costs as well as ongoing grave maintenance. 

Sources:
  1. Amoruccio, Danny. “What Is Perpetual Care?” Willowbrook Cemetery. 28 June 2018. WillowbrookCemetery.com
  2. “Guide to Cemetery Purchases.” Funeral Consumer Alliance. Funerals.org
  3. “How Much Does a Burial Plot Cost?” Lincoln Heritage Funeral Advantage. LHLIC.com
  4. Matarese, John. “‘Perpetual’ cemetery care? It’s not eternal.” WCPO Cincinnati. 1 June 2016. WCPO.com

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