Recession takes a toll on cemeteries

There's an old saying about death being a recession-proof business. After all, come hell or high water (or maybe because of them), somebody's going to die. But the nation's cemeteries are facing a tough row to hoe as recession-weary consumers pare down burial plans and escalating real-estate prices crimp land purchases.

That's leaving some in Provincetown, Mass., to wonder if the town cemetery, with just six plots left, won't soon run out of space, reports USAToday. While the Cape Cod community has set aside money to acquire two acres of adjacent land, it isn't certain the town council will release the money to fund the purchase, when other needs, such as schools and street maintenance, are also under the surgeon's knife.

It isn't only municipally owned cemeteries feeling the pinch. In Phoenix, the Catholic Diocese reports sales of prepaid plots have dropped 17% in the last two years.

"People are at this time reluctant to take their extra funds and spend it on items that are not necessary," said Gary Brown, who oversees six diocese-run cemeteries.

Another Phoenix cemetery owner told USAToday that customers are increasingly looking for bargains, further squeezing cemetery budgets. About 68% of Arizona residents opted for cremation in the past year, an 8 percentage-point increase from just a year ago.

With costs of cremation less than half of that of burial, customers don't see any value in burying the dead.

Another way consumers are reducing funeral-related expenses is by forgoing publishing obituaries in the local paper. But in Saginaw, Mich., residents can still get the word out for one-tenth the price by instead buying air time on the local CBS affiliate, which itself is hurting, thanks to fewer advertising dollars flowing into its coffers.

WNEM-TV has aired more than 700 obituaries since it began the service in August. The station's general sales manager, Jeff Guilbert, said local obituaries may be the "largest local client on air" within two years. For now, however, the revenue stream remains untested.

"Right now, it happens to work out well with a down-market," Guilbert said. "Michigan has been hit hard by the recession, and the entire state is looking at our product."
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