Real Estate for the Afterlife
The price of your final piece of New York City can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million.
CreditCreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times
If the ever-soaring price of condos in New York City has your head spinning, wait until you shop for a cemetery plot.
Prices for the last piece of real estate that any New Yorker will ever own — a cemetery plot or an aboveground crypt — have also climbed significantly over the years.
Basic cemetery plots across the five boroughs now generally cost $4,500 to $19,000, not including hefty fees for foundations, interments and maintenance. The best deals can be found on Staten Island, where a grave site can be had for less than $3,000, but an increasingly rare final resting place in Manhattan can go for $1 million.
But wherever you go, you won’t actually own the land. When you buy a burial spot, you’re just acquiring the right to use the space in perpetuity — not unlike the shares you get when you buy in a co-op building and live in an apartment that you don’t technically own.
While cemetery directors long ago warned that the city would soon run out of burial space, they, like their counterparts in other types of real estate development, have found ingenious ways to carve out new space in already crowded environments. In fact, there may be enough cemetery plots left in the city to last for several more decades, even in historic sites like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
The growing popularity of cremation has helped ease the demand. While consumers have turned to cremation for many reasons, an urn with cremated remains — or cremains, as the funeral industry refers to them — takes up far less space than a coffin. An in-ground plot for cremains at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn is only two square feet and starts at $1,200.
Space, of course, was less of an issue 150 years ago.
When Tammany Hall politician Boss Tweed died in 1878, he and his family had already bought two large plots at Green-Wood that were combined to accommodate one and all. Mr. Tweed’s final abode is 600 square feet and enclosed by a low granite wall with a bronze gate. His monument stands at the center, surrounded by other monuments and headstones for his father, his wife and children, and assorted relatives — with plenty of room to spare.
Today, thanks in part to a taste for mobility that often flings us far from our places of birth, a more typical cemetery purchase might be a single plot, chosen and bought by survivors during the grief-racked days after the unexpected death of a loved one.
Perhaps not surprising in a city as dense as New York, the deceased are often not alone in their “single” plots. At many cemeteries, plots accommodate two stacked caskets (a “double-depth” grave, in funeral parlance). At others, a single grave can hold three — perhaps the logical last port of call for a family of three who made do with a one-bedroom apartment.
Plot sizes vary from cemetery to cemetery, and even within cemeteries, but over the years they have been shrinking. At the 156-year-old Woodlawn, a landmark on 400 rolling acres, some older plots are four feet wide by 10 feet long; in a new section being laid out, the plots are 40 inches wide by 8 feet 6 inches long. And at Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, the plots are just 30 inches wide by seven feet long. Welcome to the studio apartment for the deceased.
Although many cemeteries have plenty of grave sites left, the really choice plots in the oldest, and often loveliest, areas are harder to come by.
In death, as in life, location matters. Woodlawn, for instance, still has 25 acres left to be developed and is completing a master plan mapping them out. But you would be hard-pressed to find a burial spot next to Duke Ellington, one of the jazz greats for whom the place is known. (Literary types, however, should take note: Plots are still available in the vicinity of Herman Melville, with prices starting at $20,000.)
Sometimes there are unused plots in older sections, and cemeteries can reclaim grave sites that were sold long ago but never occupied. And from time to time, people who own plots change their minds about where they want to spend eternity and seek to sell them back. Cemeteries decide, on a case-by-case basis, if buying a plot back makes sense from a resale point of view, or whether it amounts to the equivalent of acquiring an unused bedroom in someone else’s Classic Six.
“It’s not every day someone offers me a space next to Celia Cruz,” said David Ison, the executive director of Woodlawn.
Just as New Yorkers with small apartments have been forced to turn dining rooms into bedrooms and closets into home offices, cemeteries, too, have gotten creative. They have ripped up roadways and paths to make room for more grave sites. They are building mausoleums for aboveground burials — more stacking of caskets, but unlike apartment buildings, where the most desirable units tend to be at the top, in mausoleums the eye-level offerings are the most coveted and expensive, with prices declining as you go higher or lower.
Back in 2010, Green-Wood officials believed the cemetery would have to stop selling plots in about five years. Now Eric Barna, the vice president of operations, thinks the cemetery might still be burying people for decades. “The end might be 25 years away or 50 years away,” he said.
To accommodate the shift toward cremation, many cemeteries are building columbaria, aboveground structures with niches that can hold hundreds or even thousands of urns. Niches with glass fronts have become popular, allowing survivors to display not only an urn but also photos and other mementos.
Flushing Cemetery, in Queens, the 75-acre expanse where Louis Armstrong is buried, is down to its “last acre” of space for burials, said John Helly, the general manager. But the cemetery just built its first mausoleum, which opens this spring.
The structure will contain 168 crypts and 3,400 niches, and take up the same amount of space that might otherwise have been devoted to a few hundred graves. Because many of the niches are “companion niches,” with room for two urns, the mausoleum will be able to hold about 5,000 urns. “It will extend the life of the cemetery,” Mr. Helly said.
The one place where it is nearly impossible to be buried? Manhattan.
Trinity Church’s cemetery in Hamilton Heights, which sprawls on either side of Broadway and bills itself as “the only active cemetery and mausoleum” in the borough, no longer accommodates in-ground burials. Mayor Edward I. Koch was buried there in 2013, for what was then an eyebrow-raising price of $20,000. Today, aboveground crypts at Trinity can run as high as $60,000 for a single coffin, while niches for a single urn range from $1,900 to $6,500.
Those with considerably more money to spend might consider a crypt at the New York Marble Cemetery, one of many burial grounds that once dotted the East Village. There are no headstones in this hidden spot, reached through iron gates on Second Avenue. Weathered names of the original crypt owners, many of them Dutch and English entrepreneurs who arrived after the American Revolution, are carved on marble tablets on the walls around the lawn. Tucked underground are 156 80-square-foot crypts made of Tuckahoe marble, with slate doors on iron hinges.
“Picture a wine cellar with a vaulted ceiling,” said Caroline S. DuBois, the cemetery’s volunteer president, whose own family crypt has had 19 burials since 1831.
Through a painstaking and lengthy process, the cemetery has reclaimed two empty crypts and is offering them for sale, at $350,000 each. “Maybe,” Ms. DuBois speculated, one of them will go to “a hedge-fund manager who’s bought all the diamonds and yachts he needs” and wants a permanent place of residence among New York’s earlier go-getters.
But the New York Marble Cemetery’s crypts aren’t the priciest Manhattan digs for the deceased. Wealthy Roman Catholics could choose to spend eternity at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, on Mulberry Street, the precursor to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown.
The cost: $1 million a person.
In the catacombs under the 1815 church, where the Delmonicos of restaurant fame are among those entombed, the church is selling nine about-to-be-created granite crypts. Originally, the church was going to build six and sell them as a group for $7 million, but there were no takers.
“We had to rethink our pricing strategy,” said Frank Alfieri, the director of cemetery and columbaria, who noted that there has been “strong” interest in the $1 million options.
If plots in Manhattan are scarce, it is in no small part because officials started banning burials there in the 1800s, while encouraging the creation of “rural” cemeteries in places like Brooklyn and Queens.
Green-Wood, founded in 1838, was the first New York City cemetery of this type. Originally reached from Manhattan by ferry, it sprawled on 478 acres overlooking the Upper New York Bay and had so many visitors in the 1860s that it rivaled Niagara Falls as a tourist destination.
By the mid 19th century, New York City’s “Cemetery Belt” had developed along the Brooklyn-Queens border. That concentration of cemeteries accounts for why the dead in Queens, at over five million, outnumber the living by more than two to one. The last cemetery to open in New York City was Resurrection Cemetery, in Staten Island, in 1980.
Across the city, recent arrivals to New York are leaving their mark on older burial grounds. Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, for example, have brought a preference for polished headstones of black granite with photorealistic depictions of the dead — a stark contrast to the plainer, timeworn stones with Hebrew lettering favored by Jews of earlier generations.
Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Maspeth, Queens, which dates to 1850 and has a section where Japanese nationals were buried as early as 1913, has felt the influence of multiple ethnic groups, said Edward Schmitt, the cemetery’s grounds foreman. “First, there was a big Greek wave, then Polish,” he said. Now, the cemetery is seeing an influx of Asian customers.
Although cemeteries, as a rule, have been slow to modernize, some are trying to adjust to shifting consumer preferences. In addition to making room for cremains, some have started accepting “green burials,” which forgo embalming, metal caskets and cement or metal liners in the earth, in favor of biodegradable coffins or shrouds.
Many cemeteries are also putting information online — they have websites and Facebook pages — and some are transferring records from old ledgers to searchable online databases.
In yet another development, cemeteries are opening up their grounds for events like movie screenings, dance performances, walking tours, bird walks and yoga classes. Green-Wood has pioneered this “cultural center” model, as Mr. Barna put it, and is attracting a quarter of a million people a year for reasons that have nothing to do with funerals or visits to grave sites.
This business model has enabled cemeteries to envision a future in which they can survive, despite reduced revenue from plot sales and interments. It is also, in a way, a return to a role rural cemeteries originally played, as public open space.
While planning for the afterlife may not be a priority for most of us, so-called “death cafe” discussion groups, including those held at branches of the New York Public Library, provide an opportunity for people to grapple with end-of-life questions.
“We are seeing more and more people planning ahead,” said Mr. Ison of Woodlawn. Seven years ago, he added, 40 percent of people made arrangements ahead of time, or “pre-need” rather than “at need” (by which time prices may have increased); last year, 60 percent did.
Antonia Russo pulled it off just in time.
In the summer of 2017, her mother was ailing, which lent urgency to the search for a burial plot for her parents. They had lived in Forest Hills, Queens, for most of their adult lives, but were born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant and remained “proud Brooklynites,” Ms. Russo said.
So in consultation with her parents, she opted for a spot on the Brooklyn side of the Evergreens Cemetery, which straddles Brooklyn and Queens. Ms. Russo passed up a plot on a grassy knoll under a tree in favor of one bordering Bushwick Avenue, because she felt that her mother, who had always lived on busy streets, would feel more at home. “I knew this was where she’d be happy,” Ms. Russo said.
Two weeks after the papers were signed, her mother passed away.
Cemetery plot location, like all real estate, usually comes down to personal preference, said John O. D’Arienzo, a funeral home director and the president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association. “If you take 100 people, 50 people will want to be by the road, so if it’s cold they can see the stone from the car,” he said. “The other 50 will want to be in the middle of the section, so everyone doesn’t walk all over the grave.”
He added: “It’s like who wants a blue house, who wants a red house.”
John Crawford, a retired hotel worker who lives on the Upper West Side, frequents death cafes and attended a recent one at the St. Agnes library branch on Amsterdam Avenue. Mr. Crawford is leaning toward a green burial at the Town Cemetery in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where a natural burial ground opened in 2014 on land that was once part of an estate.
The spot appeals to him in part because of its price: $1,650, which is $400 more than it costs to be buried in the conventional part of the same cemetery, but far less than what most cemeteries in New York City charge.
Mr. Crawford also admires the beautiful forested grounds.
“I may not have a country home,” he said. “But at least I could get buried out there in the country.”
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Published at Fri, 15 Mar 2019 09:00:19 +0000