A Boom in High-Rise Burials

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The space per person is not particularly roomy, usually 32 inches wide, 26 inches high and 7 feet long. But the three-level building itself is huge for its kind, prices are competitive and seismic safety is state of the art.

About a year before scheduled completion, backers say that more than half of the 8,998 units already have been sold in this $5-million project in East Los Angeles. Marketing pitches emphasize that residency can be long--very, very long.

Possibly forever inside a crypt at Gethsemane Mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery.

That giant construction project by the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese represents a new, larger dimension in interment. The concrete-and-granite honeycomb also is part of a mausoleum building boom that is changing the look of and traditions at religious, nonsectarian and for-profit cemeteries across Southern California.

The prospect of aging baby boomers crowding cemeteries as they once packed college campuses reinforces concerns about a projected shortage of burial space in many urban cemeteries. So, to ensure what the industry unsentimentally refers to as enough "inventory" 20 years from now, cemeteries are building or planning new mausoleums, and in unprecedented sizes.

"I call it an apartment house where nobody knows their neighbors," said Gerald A. Larue, a USC professor emeritus of religion who teaches a class about death and dying. The new high-rise mausoleums, he added, reflect the mass standardization throughout American culture. "It's in keeping with the way we live anyway."

Because Southern California often leads the nation in lifestyle trends, Larue and other experts predict that the dozen or so large mausoleum projects being built or planned here may be the national model for the future.

New economies of scale operate in mausoleum hallways half as long as football fields and in vertical stacks of seven final resting places per floor, three floors per building. New marketing and pricing plans seek to reverse social attitudes that say mausoleums are mainly for the affluent and that burial in the ground is somehow more proper than sliding a coffin into a wall shelf, called a crypt or tomb.

Crypts inside the large, so-called community mausoleums are being pitched as an eco-friendly alternative to cremation--which has gained in popularity over the past two decades, most dramatically on the West Coast.

Critics, however, suggest that mausoleum crypts are the funeral industry's attempt to recapture profits being lost to cremation, which generally costs less than traditional burials.

Funerals touch on all sorts of emotional, social, religious, superstitious and economic issues. However, the acceptance of cremation despite many religious and social taboos shows that customs can change with surprising speed in contemporary America, especially when pushed by savvy marketing, scholars say.

"Mores can switch very quickly, within a generation," said Kenneth Iserson, director of the bioethics program at the University of Arizona Medical School and author of the 1994 book "Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies." So he expects mausoleum construction to increase in coming years.

There is no immediate regionwide lack of burial space, despite spot shortages. But looking ahead, the industry knows that it is getting more difficult and expensive to start large new cemeteries in metropolitan areas.

Even with multimillion-dollar construction costs, big mausoleums are profitable alternatives that do not need as much maintenance as lawn graves. They also help ensure sales of such services as embalming and hearse processions that might be lost with cremation.

Under an industry rule of thumb, an acre of land can hold about 1,500 graves with ground plaques, fewer if upright headstones are used. In comparison, a mausoleum on that acre usually can hold at least 5,000 crypts and upward of 15,000 in some of the new and more ambitious projects. (The mausoleums also have niches for ash urns.)

For a striking example, consider the peach-colored Sunset Mission Mausoleum, just inside the main gate at Inglewood Park Cemetery. On its three floors, it contains about 17,000 crypts, including a modest one whose plaque holds a musical note for singer Ella Fitzgerald, who died in June. A corridor on the basement level is 215 feet long, with 70 rows of crypts, many of them sold in advance of "need."

When subsequent phases are finished over the next six years, the project will have room for a total of 30,000 caskets and several thousand cremation urns, all on 2.1 acres. That will make it the largest mausoleum in the nation, according to Donald Eiesland, Inglewood Park's president, who recently was president of the Virginia-based International Cemetery and Funeral Assn.

(About 5% of those crypts are being built roomier for large people whose caskets won't fit in a regular space. "It's a queen-sized bed compared to a regular bed," said David Wharmby, Inglewood's senior vice president of marketing.)

Sharing walls with so many other people does not bother Brenda Fauria of Altadena. "You kind of have to look at your crypt like a mini-condo because you own it," she said.

When her husband, Joseph, died of a heart attack in July at 47, she bought an exterior wall space for him at Cascade Gardens, a 4,225-crypt hillside complex that was completed last year at Inglewood Park.

She said she felt that his remains would be more secure in a mausoleum, given recent publicity about mishandling of cremated remains and unauthorized stacking of bodies in graves at other cemeteries. With a discount, Fauria also bought seven adjacent crypts for other family members at about $2,300 each.

Yet some people may be unsettled by their first visit to one of the new jumbo mausoleums.

For example, mourners must use a special pole to place flowers next to their loved ones' plaques on the highest rows of crypts. In some mausoleums, motion detector lights flash on as visitors enter corridors and taped instrumental music plays relentlessly.

For the 11 cemeteries run by the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, immigration to California from Latin America is starting to strain space, said Lewis J. Mc Adams, the cemeteries' property development director. "It is incumbent on us to [build] this and find a way to do it that people can afford," he said during a tour of the half-acre Gethsemane Mausoleum.

Also under construction is an 8,335-space Mission-style mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello. Similar Catholic mausoleums are planned at cemeteries in Mission Hills and Long Beach.

At Gethsemane, a single-casket crypt costs from $1,250 to $3,600, plus $600 or so for a plaque and for the service of installing the casket, sales staff reports. Since those costs are competitive with the costs of some grave burials, families can make a choice based on taste, not finances, salesmen say.

Some people don't need extra prodding to choose a mausoleum.

"I just didn't want to be buried in the ground, that's all there was to it," said Pauline Murawksi of La Verne. Even though the Gethsemane project was two years from completion, she and her husband, Leonard, bought crypts last year. The couple, in their late 50s, want to be close to relatives interred at Calvary.

Some buyers pick crypts instead of graves because they have fears about insects, rain and people walking over them. More often, though, such a decision results from "a created taste through marketing rather than any sociological thing," said Stephen Conley, a consultant at Westminster Memorial Park in Orange County. In contrast, he said, cremation's popularity is pushed by environmental concerns and a loosening of anti-cremation strictures among Roman Catholics and Reform Jews.

(Orthodox Jews and Muslims generally adhere to in-ground burial in the dust-to-dust tradition. Buddhist and Hindu cultures stress cremation. Most Christian denominations have no bans on entombment.)

Today, cemeteries emphasize the construction efficiencies that result in lower prices. But they also often mention the glamorous history of the mausoleum, a word derived from 4th-century-B.C. Persian ruler Mausolus, whose tomb in what is now Turkey was an ancient wonder. Starting in the 19th century, American mausoleums mainly were for the affluent and famous such as presidents and generals. They became the final home of movie stars in the 1920s at the ornate community mausoleums at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

"In our society, if it's viewed as something for the privileged, then the less privileged would want them too," said UC Berkeley economics professor Dwayne Banks, who is researching funeral costs.

Prices at a new concrete mausoleum rising next to the San Diego Freeway in Culver City encourage the purchase of crypts instead of graves. In Hillside Memorial Park's new Acacia Gardens project, a crypt with room for two caskets costs from $3,600 to $6,000, while a double lawn grave ranges from $6,100 to $8,900, according to Barry Berlin, chief operating officer of the cemetery, which is owned by Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The $2-million mausoleum at Hillside will have room for 2,908 crypts and 916 cremation niches. All spaces are open to the air on a slope that allows up to two stories. "Let's face it, we are landlocked and the way to best utilize the land is to build up," Berlin said.

Industrywide, the price of crypts usually differs by their locations within a vertical stack of six or seven. Called the heart and eye levels, the second and third spaces above the floor are the most expensive; the spot just below the ceiling, sometimes euphemized as "heavenly," is the cheapest.

Critics have complained about such sales techniques since Jessica Mitford's 1963 book, "The American Way of Death," a withering survey of the funeral industry. And if cemeteries really cared about land shortages, they would advocate cremation instead of building mausoleums, said Mitford's assistant Karen Leonard, an official of the consumer-oriented Funeral and Memorial Societies of America.

Following special state rules for seismic strength, mausoleums are built with concrete poured into honeycomb frames. Each crypt has a drain hole and vent for fluids and gases from bodily decomposition that escape coffins. Then come marble or granite facings, fountains, stained-glass windows, skylights and statuary that are designed to please the living--but critics complain that they also raise costs.

Construction plans can engender controversy. Nearby residents objected to proposed mausoleums at Resurrection Cemetery and Pacific View Memorial Park in Newport Beach. After long negotiations, those projects were modified to make sure that views were not blocked, officials said.

These days, a rare alternative to building large mausoleums is to create a new cemetery. In the northeast Simi Valley, Mt. Sinai Memorial Park expects to start construction in early 1997 on a 165-acre satellite to its Hollywood Hills cemetery.

The Jewish cemetery has been in discussions with local government for four years. "The entitlement process is rather involved," said Arnold Saltzman, the memorial park's general manager. Without the Simi Valley land, the older location may run out of space in 25 years, he said.

Analysts say that a search for "inventory" fueled recent bidding for Rose Hills Memorial Park, the largest cemetery in America. Its 1,400 acres in Whittier are being sold for $240 million to the Loewen Group, the nation's second-biggest funeral and cemetery company, and an investment bank. The largest funeral chain, Service Corporation International, wants to acquire Loewen and Rose Hills.

Yet, even with plenty of empty land, Rose Hills is building both a chapel with room for 1,560 crypts and niches and a Buddhist vault for 22,000 niches. "What we try to provide," a spokeswoman said, "is a variety of memorializations."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°