What to do with a dying cemetery?

The economics of a cemetery have always seemed a little off kilter to me. The cemetery makes money with the sale of burial plots but at some point, it will run out of real estate and, perhaps, money.

That’s what’s happening in Worthington, Minn., where a cemetery association won’t be able to make payroll by the end of the month at a 21-acre public cemetery.

A $275,000 perpetual care fund doesn’t provide enough interest income to cover the $60,000 of annual expenses.

What do you do with a cemetery that’s broke?

Tom Ahlberg, who heads the cemetery board, tells the Globe of Worthington that the question is keeping him up at night.

“We would like to keep it; we just can’t afford to keep operating as we are,” Ahlberg said. “We’re asking them [the city and/or Nobles County] to cover the shortfall, with a maximum per agency of $10,000. We would use our money first, but if we run into a shortfall, they would be there to back us.”

The oldest grave in the place is from 1872. A former Minnesota governor, a Civil War veteran, is buried there.

There are still plots for sale but he says there’s a problem: People don’t buy them until they need them and people live longer and don’t need them quite as regularly.

Ahlberg’s plan seems dead on arrival.

[edit to add]
“As long as the city and the county work together, I believe that we will help them stay in business as they are — that’s my feeling,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson.

“It’s not the business of the city or the county to run a cemetery — that makes no sense for us,” he said. “I would hope all our constituents would agree with that.”

  • Mike Worcester
    • Jim in RF

      That’s what I thought too. In WI, counties also provide stipends for upkeep of veterans’ graves, regardless of who runs the cemetery.

  • MikeB

    I see nothing wrong with a city or county managing a cemetery. Makes sense that they should do so.

    • wjc

      I’m as much of a tax-and-spend liberal as the next guy (as long as the next guy isn’t Gary), but I don’t think it makes any sense to have the city or county manage a cemetery. Should city and county taxpayers bail out other failing businesses?

      • Mike Worcester

        Should the question here be — is a cemetery really a business? Most of the cemetery associations I deal with are non-profits; their boards comprised of volunteers, and the only person who gets paid is the guy who mows, sometimes only their gas is reimbursed. They barely meet expenses. Churches that maintain cemeteries and graveyards (there is a difference surprisingly), are also non-profits. The Lakewoods of the world are rare when compared to the thousands of small cemeteries that dot the landscape.

        I’m trying to find the number of how many township/city/county cemeteries are out there in Minnesota but it is more elusive than I thought.

        • wjc

          So even if they are non-profits, does that mean taxpayers should step in? I think not.

      • MikeB

        Why do they fund a park? Who don’t people build their own curbs? It’s a resting place for it’s citizens. They can charge for burial costs etc.

        What happens when a cemetery cannot fund itself anymore? Condos and gas stations?

      • Nicholas Kraemer

        The article says that if a cemetery association disbands then state statute dictates that the city or county must step in to maintain it. So if the association goes under, that’s what will happen.

      • jon

        I don’t think cemeteries make much sense…

        When I die, strip this mortal coil for parts, if what is left can be leveraged for education or scientific purposes do it, with anything that’s left over you can cremate it, or bury it at sea, or launch it into space, what ever is cheapest and easiest at the time…

        Once I pass the living can make as much use of my remains as they can manage and after that dispose of them in the easiest way possible. (unless I have some frenemies who are still alive that I’d want to make have to travel to some out of the way difficult place in order to spread my ashes…)

    • Kassie

      The Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery is owned by the City of Minneapolis. They have a “Friends of…” organization that raises funds for fixing it up and some of the maintenance. They do movies and concerts and stuff in the cemetery. It is kinda cool.

  • wjc

    //Ahlberg’s plan seems dead on arrival.

    I see what you did there. 😀

  • Jerry

    Run them like parks, as the American pastoral style of cemetery is meant to be.

  • Kat S.

    Given the public health, environmental, and historical asset preservation implications of a cemetery not being maintained, yeah I actually do think the county has an interest. They may not want to run the cemetery but they’re not being asked to do so.

    I don’t know if the proposed solution is the right one, but they’re going to end up dealing with the issue one way or another.

  • Guest

    Tear them up, grind up the caskets, burn the bodies and sell the land to a developer……OR ding the taxpayer.

    Sorry but unless a person with money steps in or the place is totally abandoned; those are the choices when the money runs out, promises or not.

    Being stark on purpose to make the consequences clear.

    • Joseph

      It could just be left to nature and allowed to grow wild. Basically become a mini-prairie.

      • Guest

        Even tho that is a broken promise to those who bought a plot with “perpetual care” it sure is a lot better than selling the land…..and contents.

        • Joseph

          It could be argued that ‘Perpetual Care’ includes not digging up the dead and building a Walmart on the open land. Returning to nature is what we do underground anyway when we are buried. “From dust we are born, do dust we return.”

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I went and read the Globe article and think Administrator Johnson is getting a raw deal here. The paragraph before the quotation included reads:
    “As long as the city and the county work together, I believe that we will help them stay in business as they are — that’s my feeling,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson.

    I interpret that as the County Administrator is actually in favor of doing what Mr. Ahlberg suggests. In the context of the first part of the quote, the second part repeated above makes more sense. It sounds like the County Administrator is willing to work with the City of Worthington to provide the gap funding needed. Because “It’s not the business of the city or the county to run a cemetery…” that’s better left to the Cemetery board.

  • AmiSchwab

    in germany you “buy” your plot for 20 years or so. after so many years you can renew or not.

    • Guest

      Interesting, what happens when nobody is around to pay the rent?

      • AmiSchwab

        you “buy” for the time period. what they do with the remains later i’m not sure

  • JoeInMidwest

    Will there be mass evictions of the residents??