Room for the dead

Urban cemeteries face overcrowding, but space andcremation rates leave plenty of plots in more rural areas

Urban cemeteries face overcrowding, but space andcremation rates leave plenty of plots in more rural areas

May 05, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

Everybody's going to die.

Modern medicine has extended life expectancies, but eventually, one way or another, death will happen.

Where will you - physically, not your soul or spirit - go?

The U.S. Census Bureau counted more than 280 million Americans in Census 2000. Maryland's 2000 population was more than five and a half million people, and Washington County residents numbered 132,000.

Will there be room in the cemeteries for everyone?

It's not a problem, says Robert Fells, external chief operating officer and general counsel at the International Cemetery and Funeral Association. The Reston, Va.-based trade organization holds educational conferences and provides information for its more than 6,000 members and consumers, as well.


Although the population is expanding, Fells says that many cemeteries in the United States have undeveloped land. And, the increasing rate of cremation also is having an effect on the use of cemetery land for burials. About 20 to 25 percent of people nationwide are choosing cremation, Fells says. The rate is higher in California and Florida - about 40 percent, he estimates.

No one seems to be able to come up with a precise number of cemeteries or cemetery acreage.

"We actually don't have good numbers on that," says Dennis Britson, executive director of the North American Cemetery Regulators Association. Many cemeteries are exempt from regulations, he says, and even among the 600 to 700 regulated cemeteries in Iowa, where Britson lives and works, the number of cemetery acres is not information that's required.

Fells estimates there are about 22,000 cemeteries in the United States. Most cemeteries are not-for-profit operations, he says. That's a small part of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 "burial grounds" in the country, a term that includes private and church-affiliated resting places, he adds.

In Washington County, cemeteries are allowed in all zoning classifications, says Robert Arch, Washington County planning director. Often, cemeteries are associated with churches, he says. "We've never had anybody contact us with space problems," he says.

Charles S. Brown, owner of Rest Haven Cemetery and Mausoleum, has 50 acres in his cemetery in the North End of Hagerstown. He figures there will be enough room for 50 to 75 more years.

Cemetery real estate is tighter in more populous areas of the country, however.

In New York City and in some of the older cities in New York, cemetery space is a problem, says Richard D. Fishman, director, New York Department of Cemeteries.

There's been a reclamation bill in the state legislature for a couple of years - it's passed the house, but not the senate, Fishman says. If passed this session, the law would enable cemeteries to reclaim graves that were bought 75 or more years ago, but never used. All possible contacts with purchasers or their descendants would have to be made, but if the plots were clear, as many as 10,000 to 30,000 graves could be made available, says Fishman, who's also the president of the North American Cemetery Regulators Association. That would keep New York cemeteries going for quite a while, he adds. "But eventually, that's it."

Fishman also sees the rate of cremation increasing. And there are other space-in-the-earth-saving options.

Many cemeteries allow for the "double depth" burials, the burial of two caskets - one above the other - in one grave, according to information on the International Cemetery and Funeral Association Web site,

Interment in a mausoleum - a large building that provides above-ground entombment for a number of people - is another alternative.

Cremation, the process of burning the body of the deceased, is being selected by more individuals or their families as a method of final disposition. One reason is, it's cheaper, says Steven Sklar, director of the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight. Some people choose to have the cremated remains or cremains, buried at a cemetery - an "earth burial." Others choose to purchase a niche in a columbarium, which Brown describes as a miniature mausoleum. Some scatter the ashes of their loved one in a designated scattering place in a cemeteries, or in a place of significance to the deceased person.

You can scatter ashes anywhere you want - "so far" - with permission from the property owner if that applies, Sklar says. He's read about opportunities to have your ashes fused to a coral reef or blasted into space.

Yes, we all will die.

"A lot of people don't think about it," Fells says. They are "dumbstruck" at the death of their 95-year-old grandmother.

Fells and members of his association would prefer to deal with people who have thought about death and funeral arrangements. They can make better decisions and choices when they are not overcome by grief.

Sklar, president-elect of the North American Cemetery Regulators Association, also has a considerable amount of consumer contact. His office phone number is printed on every cemetery contract. He says he's had calls from graveside - people on cell phones voicing tearful complaints about services they paid for and say weren't delivered. Sklar's office is a resource for consumers, and people can do some shopping - ahead of time - and avoid such situations.

We want people to be able to go to a cemetery for one purpose: To celebrate the life of a loved one, Sklar says.

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