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Grave profits
Like any other green space, cemeteries need lots of upkeep. A corner cut here or there can lead to calamity
by Burney Simpson
Jane King of Auburn rakes grass and weeds that were cut during a cleanup day at Wimmer Cemetery, a private cemetery in Auburn
Township. Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans are buried in this cemetery, which the township helps maintain for Auburn families.
Photograph by Chris Young, courtesy of The State Journal-Register of Springfield.

Jane King of Auburn rakes grass and weeds that were cut during a cleanup day at Wimmer Cemetery, a private cemetery in Auburn Township. Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans are buried in this cemetery, which the township helps maintain for Auburn families. Photograph by Chris Young, courtesy of The State Journal-Register of Springfield.

Cemeteries are usually quiet spots. They might bear witness to tears and sighs. More often, they are places for reflection, silent and still. A visitor on any given weekday is likely to be the only living soul around. For all their calm, though, cemeteries are very much a part of the living world. Increasingly, they are part of the corporate world, echoing with the noise of the countinghouse.

Entrepreneurs, with an eye to long-term investment potential, have been buying up Illinois cemeteries. And while most cemetery owners are good managers, shoddy stewardship of some of these "investments" has provoked an outcry from survivors. And that has attracted increased attention from the state.

Emotion aside, many of this state's cemeteries are clear-eyed businesses, open-space profit centers where losses are calculated on a more down-to-earth ledger. One of those calculations is the need to keep costs down. For some cemetery owners, that means trimming the maintenance budget. And, like any other green space, cemeteries need lots of upkeep. A corner cut here or there can lead to calamity.

The Springdale Cemetery in Peoria is a case in point. By last year, it had become a 212-acre wasteland of waist-high grass, broken monuments and teetering tombstones. Dead trees lined its winding roads, some of which, with foot-deep potholes, were all but impassable. Complaints prompted renewed attention from Illinois officials. And they're finding that many of this state's dead don't sleep peacefully.

Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes organized six public meetings last year following revelations that several of the state's privately held cemeteries had fallen into ruin.

Springdale received a good deal of attention simply because of its size and historic importance. It's the resting place of Civil War veterans, former Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford and Peoria resident Octave Chanute, an early aviator. But an investigation found that, while the cemetery had revenues of $225,000 in one year, only $36,000

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was spent on maintenance.

Last September, after years of mismanagement, a Peoria County judge ordered control of the cemetery turned over to Peoria attorney Richard Eagleton until he can find a new buyer. The most recent owner, Larry Leach, has since been arrested for selling some of the Civil War-era cannons on its grounds. For their part, Peorians are volunteering to clean up what had once been a grand park-like setting for that city’s families.

Meanwhile, conditions were so grim at Mount Glenwood South cemetery in south suburban Glenwood, that bones have been poking through the surface of the grounds, according to testimony at the hearings. Hynes contends the cemetery used shoddy burial methods. The owner, Willard Timmer, faces a class action lawsuit for civil rights violations because the cemetery has long been a minority burial ground. One portion of the cemetery has historically been reserved for state-subsidized indigent burials, and Hynes would like that subsidy to be increased. Timmer’s attorney is not commenting.

These are merely two of the most extreme examples of charges against cemetery management. Most of us assume that our loved ones’ final resting places will be well maintained, notes Helen Sclair, who teaches classes on Chicago-area cemeteries at the Newberry Library in that city. “People think that Grampa is in the ground and everything’s wonderful. But then they don’t go back for 30 years. When they do see it, it can be a disaster.”

Hynes is promoting legislation this spring aimed at preventing such disasters. For the most part, he would strengthen state regulation of business standards at privately owned cemeteries. Hynes isn’t the first comptroller to propose such reforms. Since the 1940s, that office has been responsible for financial oversight of some privately owned cemeteries. Authority was later expanded to include businesses that sell plots on a pre-need basis. Under state law, a portion of all regulated cemeteries’ revenues are put into a trust fund. The interest earned by that fund is supposed to help pay for maintenance.

But Hynes’ plan also would expand the state’s authority over maintenance standards. That would be a rare move, according to a report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The report, released last year, found that while authority to regulate cemeteries varies from state to state, among the larger states only Florida requires an annual inspection of the cemeteries it oversees.

More specifically, Hynes would require an owner to provide “reasonable maintenance” of the property. “There’s a gap in people’s understanding of what they can expect when they buy a plot,” he says. “So we want it clearly stated in the law that if you buy a plot, the least you can expect is that the lawn will be mowed, trees and bushes trimmed, and that it is kept in decent shape.”

The plan has received bipartisan support in the General Assembly, but it faces some hurdles. The Illinois Ceme-tery and Funeral Home Association is opposed to the package as drafted. The 200-member trade group argues that cookie-cutter standards are unrealistic.

“There are many different types and styles [of cemeteries]. The memorial cemetery has flat markers and needs far fewer man-hours of maintenance,” says Charlene Garner, the group’s executive director. “A monument or rural style cemetery will have hills, winding roads and upright monuments.”

The group opposes another provision, as well, one that would give anyone who buys a grave plot or a headstone 30 days to void the contract.

But Hynes’ plan is predicated on the need for expanded consumer protections. And he would address the corporate trend in the cemetery business by requiring more information about owners and managers. Under his reforms, cemetery owners and sales staff would have to post corporate information in their offices and in their contracts.

Over the last decade, two large out-of-state corporations went on a cemetery buying spree in Illinois. Such investments seemed to make sense, what with the giant Baby Boom generation moving into middle age. Service Corporation International, a $3.3 billion Houston-based funeral home and cemetery owner, has been buying 400 properties a year, according to the stock research firm Hoover’s Inc. SCI owns 17 cemeteries in Illinois.

The Loewen Group Inc., based in British Columbia, owned 116 cemeteries and funeral homes in Illinois last summer and had 105,000 customers here. Many of their properties continue to operate under the previous owners’ names.

Maintenance hasn’t been a problem with the bigger corporations, according to Hynes. But an out-of-town owner could treat customers differently than would a local owner who attends church or lives around the corner. The idea is that customers ought to be able to make more informed choices.

Indeed, treating cemeteries like any other investment can have unforeseen consequences for consumers. Loewen’s aggressive buying spree led to cash-flow problems and that company declared bankruptcy last summer. Hynes has had to go to court to ensure that Illinois customers can recoup the $55 million they had contributed to Loewen’s trust fund.

As that case drags on, Garner and Hynes say they are willing to compromise on some provisions of his proposed legislation. And he named Garner to an advisory committee of industry representatives formed to work with his office.

Yet even if Hynes succeeds in strengthening state authority, most Illinois cemeteries won’t be covered by the regulations. According to Hynes’ office, only about 900 of the state’s estimated 9,000 cemeteries fall under his authority. The rest are operated by municipalities and townships, military organizations or religious groups. There also may be thousands of abandoned burial sites.

For now, though, the emphasis is on ensuring that those who would profit from cemetery sales provide a quiet, truly lasting place of rest. “It’s been overlooked too long in Illinois,” says Hynes. “It’s an issue that affects all of us ultimately.” 

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