NJ Urbanthinker Original Material
By Brian Kempf
April 20th, 2017
My dad always told me that the thing about the cemetery business was that folks are dying to get in. Like other dad jokes, they represent the wisdom of the ages distilled into a one-liner potent enough to clear tables at family parties. But these days, I’m hard-pressed to find anyone my age who wants to be buried. My girlfriend wants to naturally decompose and turn into soil that can nourish a tree. My sister takes after Frank from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (“When I’m dead, just throw me in the trash”), and I’m inclined towards the treatment Steve Buscemi’s character got in The Big Lebowski.
Our attitudes about death may well be a product of our age, but there is something else to it. According to the National Funeral Directors’ Association, cremations were expected to exceed burials by 2015. Cremation rates have actually increased from 32.3% in 2005 to 51.6% (projected) by 2017. According to the NFDA, the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial has risen by 28.6% to $7,181 between 2004 and 2014. http://www.nfda.org/news/statistics A scan of news headlines tells a story of cemeteries running out of room. It may be ill-advised to say that the burial industry is dying, but the business of death is certainly changing.
Becoming interred may be the most expensive real estate decision an average person could make on a price per square foot basis. The average coffin is about 16 square feet in size, and a casket usually goes for about $2,000. At a price of $125/square foot, it is 48% higher than the average price per square foot for a single-family house in the United States, and about 12% higher than the average price for a single family house in the northeast. https://www.census.gov/const/C25Ann/soldmedavgppsf.pdf Burial is a seriously expensive undertaking, and it’s small wonder that families and loved ones opt for a less expensive option, or a more modest option in line with the deceased’s wishes
When you think about these statistics, it’s easy to see how our views on burial places have evolved more broadly. Somehow, many of us have given less value to the idea that a final resting place (either in a coffin or urn) should be a predominantly spatial concern. Maybe it’s a generational idea: my grandfather is buried in a stoic cemetery in Paramus two miles from my grandparents’ old house, and my uncle is buried a mile and a half away from his old house in Middletown. But there is no family plot. In an era where massive suburbanization has resulted in many households owning smaller pieces of land than in centuries past, it’s not an entirely surprising trend. According to the New Jersey Cemetery Board, you have to apply to the Board to operate as a cemetery company in order to be buried on your own private property. An application for a Certificate of Authority is $500, and there are nine different laws under which you can organize a cemetery company.
I think about the historic cemetery down the street from the house where I grew up. A sign says it was established in the 1700s, and it appears that folks stop being buried there sometime in the early 1900s. I always remember the cemetery being overgrown, but then every time that old cemetery enters my consciousness a local Boy Scout troop comes along and cuts back the vegetation and uprights any fallen grave markers. The cemetery is on a small hill overlooking an overgrown creek. The land is valuable and the soil is fertile- the cemetery would be a beautiful place for a house or farm. And yet it was where bygone residents and landowners chose to bury their dead. Of course, there are practical reasons to siting cemeteries on good land (such as drainage) but it’s hard to conceive of more new cemeteries opening up in the 21st century.
Another cemetery by my house was on an even taller hill – more than 200 feet high – and is surrounded by pines instead of the usual oaks. At the turn of the 20th century, you could probably have seen straight across the hills towards Raritan Bay and New York City. On this acre in the Mount Pleasant Hills, you can now hear the long yawn of the Parkway and smell decomposing leaves. You can catch a glimpse of a backyard pool and hear the splat of a tennis ball hitting a racquet. The pastoral isolation disappeared with the advent of suburbia, but the cemetery still feels set-apart here on this lonely hilltop with more than a century of family burials under my feet and no signage to explain what the cemetery means. This cemetery is on just one of the more than 1,100 acres of cemeteries and graveyards in Monmouth County alone, meaning that two-tenths of one percent of my home county is dedicated to the dead, and the remaining 99.8% to the living.
When I walk through a cemetery where no relations are buried, I think about who these cemeteries are for. Are they more for the dead as a final resting place, for the loved ones as a place of quiet consideration and memorialization? Could they be for everybody else, too?
Many cemeteries aren’t technically public spaces. Municipalities or governments own relatively few cemeteries in New Jersey – many are in the hands of churches and non-profit cemetery associations. That’s not to say you cannot outright visit a private cemetery (I’ve never seen one that does during the daytime), but theoretically you could exclude anyone from private property- it is just not clear why you would exclude someone from a cemetery where anybody could be buried. For cemeteries, the distinction between public and private is pretty blurry. After all, the dead cannot necessarily exclude you from visiting their final resting place if the cemetery is open to the dying public. Nothing outright prohibited me from visiting the historic family plots near my house, but I still felt like an interloper.
It is even harder to not feel like an interloper in New Jersey’s most visible cemetery- Holy Sepulchre in Newark and East Orange. The cemetery has the unique distinction of being bisected by the Garden State Parkway, and is likely seen by tens of thousands of motorists each day. According to C.E. Grundler, who has written about the cemetery. https://cegrundler.com/2010/11/16/graves-beneath-the-garden-state-parkway/ it is not likely that anyone is buried underneath the Parkway because the toll road replaced a local street that had historically bisected the cemetery. But it is nonetheless a sublime feeling to speed past thousands of gravestones lining the Parkway, wondering whether those buried there ever anticipated the traffic past their final resting place.
Yet somehow I don’t feel like an interloper when I visit the arenas in the Meadowlands- the infamous (and supposed) final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa. It did not surprise me when it was announced that he was not buried under Giants Stadium, but would they have said likewise if workers did find him there? The spectacle of the non-resting place matched the spectacles that occurred on top of it, and it seemed as natural and true as any tidbit of Jersey folklore originating from its forests, farms, and marsh.
In my regular drives up and down Jersey, I’m struck by the presence of cemeteries in the strangest of places. If you’ve ever tried to go from Atlantic City to North Jersey without paying a toll, it’s useful to know you don’t have to pay a dime if you take the Parkway to Exit 50. You’ll be routed through backroads and hamlets and pines and see New Jersey in a rare way. More likely than not, you’ll go through the village of New Gretna. When I was driving here, I passed the municipal building and firehouse, but to my right across from a school I saw a playground overlooking a cemetery. A small fence separates the two, but the juxtaposition fascinated me. Do the children using the playground think about the proximate cemetery located just down the hill? The line between the land of the very-much-alive and the dead could hardly be more tenuous.
New Jersey is a place starved for land for both the living and dead. What’s not subdivided is urbanized, and a handful of prized acres get preserved forever. But with fewer places to rest after we pass from this life, where exactly do we go? And when we go, will the ones we leave behind – as well as everyone else – have a place to visit? The questions may be morbid, but I’m dying for some answers.