When the baby boomers finish their life’s journey, they’ll find plenty of room in local cemeteries.
Even as the United Kingdom tries to cope with its overflowing burial grounds, and some U.S. municipalities have either raised cemetery fees or closed their grounds to further interments, most Ann Arbor cemeteries have room for aging members of the population bulge. Burial promises to be the last industry to benefit from the astonishing fecundity of post-World War II parents
“We should be able to go for quite some time now,” says Larry Sanborn, grounds manager at Forest Hill Cemetery, the city’s oldest. “We’ve got quite a lot of room left.”
“We have enough space for 17,000 more people,” says Wanda Hagan, who owns Arborcrest Memorial Park. “We’ll be around for 200, 300 years.”
And Brian Isley, assistant manager at Bethlehem Cemetery, says there are still eight or nine undeveloped acres in the parcel owned by Bethlehem United Church of Christ. The industry rule of thumb is that an acre can accommodate a thousand graves.
To put those numbers in perspective, there were about 140 interments at Arborcrest last year, ninety-three at Forest Hill, about 150 at Bethlehem Cemetery, 194 at Washtenong Memorial Park, and just nine at city-owned Fairview Cemetery.
The lone exception to the high vacancy rate is St. Thomas Catholic Cemetery, which has been virtually full for several years, according to Glen Johnston, the church’s business manager. “All the lots are sold,” he says, “although we do have one small section that has in-ground burial sites for cremains.”
While it’s still true that nobody gets out of this world alive, more Ann Arborites are traveling lighter these days, thanks to a growing preference for cremation. Nationally, a little more than a third of Americans are electing to be cremated, but Bethlehem’s Isley says the figure there is about 50 percent, and Sanborn estimates that two-thirds of Forest Hill’s interments are cremains.
“Cremains only take up 210 cubic inches, on average,” says Arborcrest’s Hagan. “We don’t need as much land mass as we do for a human in a casket.” Even full burials take up less space than they once did. As with the living, “land use was very liberal seventy or eighty years ago,” she says. “You might have allowed a body twenty-one feet by ten feet when you only need three feet by seven and a half feet.”
An increasingly mobile population has also meant more individual site purchases. “You don’t nowadays have a family that’s going to buy that family plot,” says Sanborn. “Individuals are buying two graves for mom and dad, but the children are who knows where, out of state or not really worried about being in the same location.”
“Burial rights” to a gravesite cost anywhere from $600 (for Bethlehem members’ cremains) to $1,400 (for a full-body plot at Forest Hill). Interment–the burial itself–runs another $300-$1,000. “We adjust according to what the economy needs for us to do,” says Hagan. “Families can’t afford what they did five years ago, so we do what we have to do to make them happy. Nobody in our business wants to lose somebody because our prices are too high, but we have to be realistic to be able to pay the bills.”
Increased volume may help. “We’re about to see the cusp of the baby boomers beginning to use their spaces,” Hagan says. “We are primed for a boost in our service capability.”