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For cemeteries, affordable land can be tough to find

While land use is a growing issue for a number of industries, it is becoming a very real concern for those in the burial business. An ever-increasing population means a growing need for decent, respectful places to lay the deceased. Thus, cemeteries are finding it harder and harder to find land suitable for their business at a price they can afford.

“We have a lot of available land in Mississippi, so it’s not that big of an issue here. But it is in other parts of the country,” said Larry Chedotal, president of the Mississippi Cemetery Association. “It’s going to get bigger in the future.”

While the quantity of land may not be an issue in the Magnolia State, the quality of available space is. Chedotal, who owns Natchez Trace Memorial Park Cemetery in Madison, said cemeteries obviously would prefer to be near population centers — where people live. However, that land is expensive, making it unfeasible from a business point of view, and generally people disdain living close to the property. Thus, most cemeteries are developed on property on the edge of town.

But death waits for no one, and what is the edge of town today may be the heart of a city in the future. For instance, when Chedotal established Natchez Trace Memorial Park Cemetery, it sat on the outskirts of Madison. But Madison is one of the fastest-growing communities in the state, and now the cemetery is nestled in the middle of the city on U.S. 51.

And Chedotal said he has had plenty of competition come to town since opening Natchez Trace Memorial Park Cemetery.

“When I started Natchez Trace, there were only five memorial parks in the area,” he said. “Today, there are 12 of them. Five or six have opened in the last few years in the Madison area.”

Considering that once a cemetery is established it is protected in perpetuity and cannot be redeveloped, coupled with possible qualms of surrounding landowners over having a cemetery in their “backyard,” perhaps one could expect local governments to look to deter cemetery development. But that does not seem to be the case. No local governments contacted for this story said it had any special conditions or requirements that cemeteries must meet for zoning approval.

Alan Hoops, director of community development with the City of Madison, said his city has no special zoning ordinances pertaining to cemetery development; however, he said a cemetery would probably be classified a quasi-public facility. The process to gain zoning approval for quasi-public facilities has a built-in public comment component.

Getting bigger

There is only so much space cemeteries have for burial. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre, and each plot is 32-36 square feet, with the average being 34 square feet. Factor in the need for roads and other non-burial infrastructure, and Chedotal said the average cemetery owner can only expect to fit in approximately 1,000 plots.

There are some options cemeteries can choose to get more burials per acre. One is double-depth burial. This allows for the burial of two bodies in the same plot, one atop the other. This is a win/win — the cemetery owner saves space, and, since this plan is less expensive than buying two separate plots, offers a break in cost to customers.

Another option is mausoleums. The above-ground option is attractive to the cemetery owner because it conserves space, and is popular with some family and loved ones as a more attractive mode of burial than interment.

However, mausoleums cannot solve another, well, growing problem. Americans are eating better, and getting bigger. Cemetery owners across the country are facing the issue of each burial taking up more space than previous ones.

“I’m getting more and more requests for over-sized plots. People are just bigger than the used to be,” said Glen Leach, owner of the 15.5-acre Glenwood Memorial Park in Richland. He added with a grin, “There’s not much I can do about that.”

Chedotal said it is impossible to expand a mausoleum to accommodate larger bodies. It is literally and figuratively set in stone. He said vaults, too, are not built for the over-sized. Wrapping up his take on larger bodies needing larger plots, Chedotal said, “This whole issue is rather delicate.”

After the storm

Future cemetery locations are also being impacted by a brand new factor — Hurricane Katrina. Images of caskets floating through flooded streets were disturbing to say the least. Katrina showed how important decent, respectful places for the dead are to the general public.

Chedotal owns Restlawn Park, situated on the West Bank of New Orleans. It sustained no water damage and minimal wind damage. It never closed, and the cemetery now has something of a short-term monopoly on the area’s burial business.

“We’re getting phone calls from funeral homes that have never called us before,” Chedotal said.

A longtime member of the cemetery industry, Chedotal has nonetheless been affected by the emotional toll paid by the survivors of the storm who now have friends and loved ones needing burial services and few places to turn to find them. He related the story of one man whose wife died at the time of Katrina, but burial had been delayed three weeks because of all the destruction. As Hurricane Rita approached, the man called Chedotal, begging him to go ahead with the burial to avoid potential further delay from the second storm.

“He said, ‘Please, I just want to get this behind me,’” Chedotal remembered. “It’s just terrible.”

Chedotal said he expected Katrina to cause a rethinking of placing cemeteries near the Coast. He believes that no cemetery in the future should be allowed within two miles of the water.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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