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Broker Steps In When Resting Place Isn’t Final : Dealer Says Population’s Mobility Helps Keep Resales of Burial Plots Alive

Times Staff Writer

When Herman Shrager goes--and there is no sign that will be soon, knock on wood--one thing his family won’t have to worry about is finding a place to bury him. At last count, Shrager owned about 400 burial plots, plus another 300 owned by others but “listed” with him, just as if he were a real estate broker.

In fact, Shrager is a broker--a cemetery broker, consulted by those who, for one reason or another, want to change their final resting place before it becomes final.

“Families that move or remarry or change their way of living or dying or religion contact us and ask us to sell the property,” said Shrager.

Tops in His Field

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But Herman Shrager isn’t just another buyer and seller of grave sites. At 76, with offices in Studio City, Shrager may be the dean of California’s 200 or so licensed cemetery brokers, a man who estimates that he has provided a secondary market for at least 100,000 funeral plots since he got into this line of work back in 1939.

A spry and meticulous man, Shrager keeps track of his vast but fragmented holdings from an office on Ventura Boulevard tucked discreetly behind a real estate brokerage. He drives a big Cadillac, as befits a land baron, but the truth is that most of what Shrager owns are merely the rights to be buried in a particular cemetery. Cemeteries don’t usually sell actual real estate.

Cemetery brokers are in business because many people buy plots they later decide they don’t want, and because most cemeteries will not buy them back. Some brokers are pretty secretive. Jack Borden, a Culver City broker who is said to approach Shrager in tenure and volume of business, refused to be interviewed. So did Barry Rosson, Shrager’s son-in-law and an active broker in Encino.

For buyers, brokers offer bargains: Shrager, for example, regularly sells perfectly good plots for about two-thirds of the retail price, which can mean substantial savings on the $400 to $1,000 that plots usually cost. Brokers make money by pocketing the spread between that figure and what they give the seller, which is usually about 50% of retail. When a broker buys a plot outright, he pays less, because he has to carry it as inventory and risk being unable to sell.

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Vital Signs Still There

It is far from a dying business. There are five main brokers in the Los Angeles area (three are in the San Fernando Valley), and others apparently want to enter the field. Shrager, who doesn’t look a day over 65, is plotting his retirement now, and says he has been offered $125,000 for the company that bears his name, including an inventory of grave sites he values at $80,000. He has a tentative agreement to sell, but won’t say to whom.

“Shrager is No. 1,” said Nathan Kapin, a San Fernando funeral director who brokers plots part-time.

Nevertheless, times have been better. People are always dying, of course, but Herman Shrager and his business are not insulated from the trends that affect society at large. Some trends are beneficial: The tremendous rate at which Californians divorce and the frequency with which they move are both good for cemetery brokers, because remarriage and relocation often make people want to unload burial plots.

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“Mobility is the main thing,” said Kapin.

On the other hand, the rising preference for cremation isn’t helping at all. In 1983, the last year for which figures were available, 34% of all Californians who died were incinerated, contrasted with 12.4% nationwide, according to Cremationist Magazine. Ten years ago, the figure for California was 23.6%.

Cremation’s Inroads

“We’re getting more listings but less sales due to cremation,” said Joseph Glasband, another longtime cemetery broker in Studio City.

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As a result, sales are off. At its peak a decade ago, the Herman Shrager Co. grossed more than $2 million a year buying and selling grave sites, Shrager says. But he says sales last year were just $300,000.

“We’ve had as much as $150,000 in inventory years back,” Shrager said. “We’re cutting our inventory because of cremation. We had a couple thousand plots.”

Cemetery brokers are not the only ones whose business is affected by the cremation trend. It has cut into retail plot sales at cemeteries, spurred a boom in the cremation business and created a huge demand for crematory equipment.

“It’s a matter of growing concern to cemeteries,” said Bud Nokes, a Glendora funeral director who is past president of the Los Angeles County Funeral Directors Assn. “The public has had the impression that we’re running out of cemetery space. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

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Shakeout in the Industry

It has also contributed to a continuing shakeout in the funeral home business, which, in the Los Angeles area, is shedding one home a month because of the growing consumer preference for simpler (and therefore less profitable) funeral arrangements. Mortuary owners are finding that their property is often worth more to developers than it can bring in the mortuary business, said Ron Hess, publisher of Los Angeles-based Mortuary Management magazine.

At Forest Lawn, which has cemeteries in Glendale and the Hollywood Hills, vice president Robert Wheeler said that plot sales suffered about five years ago because of cremation, but that “it’s leveled off since then.”

And, at the annual convention of the American Cemetery Assn., cremation has been “the major topic for the past three years,” said Fred Vogel, managing editor of American Cemetery magazine.

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As an increasingly accepted, low-cost alternative to burial, it has also hurt sales by brokers. But they say the state’s growing population and the discounts they offer should keep sales from collapsing. As for cremation, the brokers don’t care much for it.

“I like to think when I die I’ll be somewhere,” said Glasband.

For Shrager, cemetery brokering is a vocation that verges on a calling, even if he was once a burial-insurance salesman who fell into brokering by accident. He boasts of having helped more than 50,000 families buy grave sites at a discount and says he has even contributed plots to those who couldn’t pay.

Brokers say sellers often turn to them after they have tried to unload their plots for a much higher price through newspaper ads. Brokers are usually listed in the Yellow Pages, but they generally don’t advertise much, depending instead on referrals from friendly funeral directors.

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For example, Glasband’s contacts are extensive. A funeral-supply salesman, he has deep roots in the industry. His father, Louis Glasband, opened the first Jewish mortuary west of the Mississippi, at 14th and Main streets in Los Angeles, in 1913.

Some plots are almost impossible to resell--in undesirable cemeteries, for example--in which case Glasband says he advises owners in high tax brackets to donate them to charity and take a deduction.

“The biggest misconception is that it appreciates in value,” he said.


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