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A Dying Industry

by Bill Campbell, MD
November 28, 2001

House Bill 3319 in South Carolina proposes to place strict demands on cemetery operators. But threatens to put "Memorial Nature Preserves" out of business.

In 1867, a young Scotsman was on a 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida. When he arrived in Savannah, the money that he expected to be waiting for him there had not arrived. He could not afford lodging, so he walked to the edge of town and camped in a cemetery, the Bonaventure. Rather than finding the experience depressing, the wild beauty of the place triggered an epiphany that helped shape his life:

"Bonaventure to me is one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures that I ever met. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life...

On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the friendly union of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the archenemy of life.

"But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony."

John Muir would go on to found the Sierra Club.

When created in the 1840s, Bonaventure was on the cutting edge of the new memorial parks cropping up around the country. The idea of burial in a natural setting was then a progressive idea. But by the time Muir returned to Bonaventure in the late 1800s, he was disappointed to find that the cemetery had been civilized. It was still pretty, but closely spaced graves dominated the wildness.

By the end of the 20th century, new memorial parks were pale imitations of those created earlier. The calculus of "moving product" and efficiency experts resulted in parks that were more one-dimensional. Interment densities rose from 750 an acre to over 2,000 an acre, thanks to clever innovations such as double occupancy graves.

Mausoleums ("the burial choice once limited to kings and queens" as one ad puts it) are now mass produced for the "common man." In some cases resembling mini-warehouses for the dead, they offer the "added dignity" of being "dry and above ground." They also increase capacity and demand a higher price.

The burial business can involve unexpected costs. Cemeteries can charge twice as much for placing the marker as for the plot itself, for example, and the marker can cost four times as much. Digging and filling the hole is an additional cost, generally $1,000. Today, the cost of the plot itself is minimized both as a marketing ploy and because the cemetery has to pay 10 percent of the cost of the plot into a perpetual care fund. It almost makes sense to give away the plot and charge a bundle for associated services. In fact, a lot of cemeteries do give away plots, or offer two-for-one deals.

Not surprisingly, the industry is in trouble. Last year, the Texas Service Corporation International, the largest death care operation in the world, saw its stock drop faster than a dot-com. Despite the millions the industry is spending on marketing elaborate funerals, more than half of Boomers are choosing cremation. And a recent study revealed that most Americans are not satisfied with the choices they have.

As individuals, funeral directors and cemetery operators are some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet. They work long, odd hours, and must deal with grieving people. But as a group, they tend to resist change, and have worked to craft state laws that protect the status quo.

Take caskets, which probably provide more profit than any other burial item. The average box costs the consumer $2,000, a fraction of what it costs the funeral director. Yet most people are unaware that the law has never required caskets for burial. At Mepkin Abby, for instance, the brothers are buried only in their vestments. Some Muslims and Jews are buried in shrouds. And no law requires embalming, a practice banned by a number of mainstream religions. Neither is embalming done for public health purposes. In fact, the practice is linked to a number of potential public health problems, the chemicals used posing health risks for embalmers and ground-water contamination. Yet South Carolina law states that only funeral homes that do embalming on site can sell caskets.

Although South Carolina has been one of the last holdouts for regulating casket sales, the lack of enforced cemetery regulations made the state an ideal place to locate Memorial Ecosystems, the country's first nature preserve cemetery.

At Memorial Ecosystems, we are trying to recapture the spirit of the early cemeteries such as the one that inspired Muir, but informed by modern conservation biology and restoration ecology, and designed to remain forever wild. We don't allow embalming, caskets must be biodegradable (shrouds and street clothes are fine), we don't allow vaults, and markers must be natural stone or a living plant.

We charge for the plot, but do not try to make money on selling or placing stones or digging the hole (this results in a more expensive plot, but a less expensive funeral, and more of the total expense going to the long-term upkeep of the preserve). Laws regulating cemeteries are a hodgepodge. Some states have mandatory minimum acreage, others have maximums. Some require paved roads through the interment areas. A number require all cemetery operators have at least two years of experience operating cemeteries.

All of that could change if House Bill 3319, which passed the House, passes the Senate. While well-intentioned, the bill would ensure that cemetery operators will do what they say they will, including keeping money in "perpetual care" accounts. But the bill does much more. It requires that the grass be kept mown, trees and bushes trimmed, and it sets a 30-acre minimum requirement. Flat markers must be bronze. Cemetery operators must own the land (it cannot be encumbered). And the cemetery board will decide if the property is appropriate for use as a cemetery before allowing a company to proceed.

That is great for lawns, but bad for nature preserves and bad for community-based cemeteries. At Memorial Ecosystems, we obviously do not trim our trees and bushes, and our grassland prairies would suffer from weekly cutting. And while bigger nature preserves are better for wildlife, what about a critical five-acre holding in a larger area of protected land? As for the bronze markers, they are more expensive and do not fit into our preserves. Finally, it is discomfiting that a group dominated by the industry would decide what is "appropriate" for us, a judgment that should come from the conservation community.

The regulation that has us the most worried, however, is about encumbering the land. The basic idea is good: cemetery owners should not borrow against the value of the cemetery land. If they go belly-up, no one wants a Wal-Mart built on top of the cemetery. But "encumbrance" has another meaning. Memorial Ecosystems is a for-profit business, but our model is to work with nonprofit organizations. We think that it is a good idea that we give the property rights and significant oversight authority to an independent organization. It keeps us honest (we would not be tempted to increase the burial density, for example), and ensures that whatever happens to the company the land will remain forever wild. But a conservation easement is an "encumbrance," and if we donate the land outright, are we allowed to run the cemetery operation under contract?

Whatever the legislature ultimately decides, we promise our patrons that we will not mow the grass once a week, and will leave the trees and shrubs un-pruned.

- Bill Campbell, MD

Bill Campbell is a general practitioner in Westminster, SC, and a founder of Memorial Ecosystems.

More information about House Bill 3319 can be found here.

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