Eternity, a little closer to heaven

Times Staff Writer

Instead of being buried 6 feet under, local Catholics can now spend eternity above ground in granite-clad crypts.

Latching onto a national trend, Catholic cemeteries in Southern California have embarked on a mausoleum-building binge.

On Wednesday at Ascension Cemetery in Lake Forest, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange dedicated a 4,000-space crypt center, the first of at least six mausoleums planned for Orange County’s three Catholic graveyards.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has also been adding mausoleums in recent years, and the Diocese of San Bernardino just opened a crypt-lined chapel in its first cemetery.

One reason for the above-ground tomb boom is the price of real estate. It’s less expensive for cemeteries to expand vertically than horizontally, officials say.


Rather than 1,000 graves per acre with traditional ground burial, mausoleums can entomb as many as 10,000 per acre, said Robert DeBeltrand, president of McCleskey Mausoleums, the Georgia company that built Ascension’s crypts.

Prices at Ascension range from $350 for a ceiling-high urn niche to $150,000 for a “private family estate garden” that can hold a dozen caskets, plus assorted urns inside hollow statues.

A third of the mausoleum’s crypts and niches have already been sold, and officials have drawn up plans for a second structure, with an indoor chapel, to be built on a neighboring strawberry patch.

Orange County’s only other Catholic mausoleum, erected in the 1960s at Good Shepherd Cemetery in Huntington Beach, is full.

Another Good Shepherd mausoleum is expected to open in mid-2008.

The new crypts are “a milestone for us,” said Michael Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Orange. “We were behind the times.”

About 10% of Catholics prefer above-ground tombs and some were turning to private cemeteries, Wesner said.

Seven years ago, the diocese overhauled its cemetery operations and drafted an expansion plan to provide enough burial space for the next 70 years. It currently handles about 1,700 interments a year.

Above-ground tombs have always had their fans, especially among Italian immigrants, but others have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years, industry officials said.

Some people say they’re “too claustrophobic” to spend eternity underground, while others worry about worms, said Paula Rathgaber-Gomez, manager of advance planning and family services for Diocese of Orange cemeteries.

Arlene Bouchard, who attended the Wednesday blessing of Ascension’s Guardian Angel Mausoleum by Bishop Tod D. Brown, said she admired the building’s ambience. “It seems more private,” she said.

Adding to the allure of mausoleums is their history. Traditionally they have been the province of the wealthy. But prices have plunged in modern times and, in some cases, mausoleums are less expensive than traditional cemetery plots, industry officials said.

Another factor is the rising popularity of cremation, which has reduced demand for large burial spaces.