More Than Grave Choices

April 03, 1995|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Once a simple realm of soil and stone, the graveyard has gone the way of the destination resort.

Eager to customize your resting place, Baltimore-area cemeteries provide all sorts of amenities, from landscaped lots and waterfront plots to condominium-style mausoleums and even $300,000 single-family tombs.

These for-profit cemeteries still provide basic accommodations, of course. But the upscale options are a big part of the sales pitch.

Competition and marketing are so intense that 10,000 Baltimore-area residents will receive phone calls or mail this week reminding them that some things are inevitable.

"Everyone who's alive is a prospect," says Robert T. Nuckolls, president of 400-acre Loudon Park in West Baltimore, the largest cemetery in the state.

At majors like Loudon, you can be buried near the rich and famous, or choose stately solitude, or be close to wildlife, or lie under the fanciest marble and granite mined by man.

A bugler will play taps at midnight, if you so desire. And security patrols to prevent vandalism continue around the clock.

All for a price, which you can finance over five years or more.

Dozens of other Baltimore-area cemeteries are affiliated with churches or synagogues and mostly retain the simple, down-to-earth philosophy of burial.

Not so the larger for-profit cemeteries. Consumers today want choices, in death as in life, says Stephen L. Morgan, spokesman for the American Cemetery Association (ACA). "You've got to give the public what they want, or they'll go down the road."

Increasingly, large corporations dominate the cemetery business. Loudon Park, 142 years old, now belongs to Stewart Enterprises, with headquarters in New Orleans.

Stewart owns 97 cemeteries (including six in Maryland) and 139 funeral establishments in 16 states, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Australia -- yet it is only the third-largest chain of this kind based in North America.

Imagine yourself as a buyer visiting a resort community (actually, a for-profit cemetery like Loudon):

* Over here, on this side of the road, is the basic dwelling, an individual gravesite costing $700 to $1,500, depending on location.

* Over there is a "garden crypt," for around $2,600 (double occupancy). Essentially it's a prefabricated grave designed to stay dry, a subterranean, steel-and-concrete chamber surrounded by drainage pipes and gravel and covered with low-maintenance turf.

* Next we have the condominium-style "community mausoleum," building filled with ventilated, casket-sized compartments, stacked seven-high from floor to ceiling. Singles cost about $2,100 to $5,000; doubles, $3,800 to $8,600. (Units at eye level are the most expensive.)

"Mausoleums have always been the most desirable burial for the famous and wealthy," says Loudon's Mr. Nuckolls. "Now, they're within reach of everybody."

Each year, more than 1,000 people are buried at Loudon in some way. (Cremated remains account for 13 percent of business). Among the cemetery's best-known tenants are Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," and writer H. L. Mencken.

Like its competitors, Loudon works hard to look good. A full-time grounds crew plants 15,000 tulips, 8,000 bedding plants and 30 trees each year. Turf is kept at a maximum height of 3 inches. Birdhouses lure songbirds.

"People are buying Loudon Park; we throw in a couple of graves," Mr. Nuckolls says.

In large metropolitan areas like Baltimore, says the ACA's Mr. Morgan, the cemetery business is "extremely competitive -- and that's good. It pits one cemetery against another and keeps everybody in check."

Few complaints against cemeteries are received by the Maryland attorney general's office. But consumers are advised to examine burial contracts carefully and ask questions; last year, a Laurel cemetery was fined $100,000 and ordered to refund more than $1 million in overcharges.

In the Baltimore area, Loudon's propensity for marketing is shared by others.

Woodlawn Cemetery, which opened in 1902, extols its rolling hills and sections bearing historical names, such as Chase and Lafayette.

In Middle River, Holly Hill Cemetery sponsors an annual Memorial Day service for the community, complete with military officials and high school bands.

Of interest at Gardens of Faith, in Perry Hall, are several condominium-style mausoleums. Not coincidentally, the 130-acre cemetery is one of five in the Baltimore area owned by Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. of Indianapolis.

At Cedar Hill, a 140-year-old cemetery near Brooklyn, you can rest in peace in developments called Tranquillity or Serenity.

Most for-profit cemeteries now have some type of above-ground burial, says James Mulvaney, general manager of Cedar Hill and Crest Lawn, a 110-acre cemetery in Howard County.

Community mausoleums, he says, are a new version of an old idea, not so different from the catacombs of ancient Rome. "What goes around comes around," Mr. Mulvaney says.

Lots near Crest Lawn's man-made lake are in demand. Some sections of the cemetery have a large statue, and gravesites at the feet are very popular. "It's like being in the first row at symphony hall," Mr. Mulvaney says.

Some people want to be buried near a pet, and Crest Lawn has a section for animals.

There are swans at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, a 220-acre expanse with a lake and lots of well-known tenants -- people named Haussner, Rouse and Goucher; Rosa Ponselle and T. Rowe Price; and Black and Decker.

Rubbing elbows with the rich and famous didn't matter to a woman from the Eastern Shore. She buried her late husband at Druid Ridge because of the waterfowl there.

The fellow, who loved the sound of Canada geese, now rests under their flyway. And that makes his widow feel better.

"Cemeteries are dedicated to the dead but made for the living," Mr. Nuckolls says.

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