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[The Hall Monitor] Cemeteries: Long-term Housing

Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. To start the New Year properly, Todd digs deep into cemeteries, offering an appraisal angles we can put a shovel to. …Jonathan Miller


The population of New York City was less than 1,500,000 in 1863 when the Woodlawn Cemetery [1] was established in the Bronx. This cemetery, which comprises an area of 400 acres, has today some 400,000 “residents” while New York City’s “active” population has climbed to 8,000,000. Although the twentieth century brought us waves of new construction to accommodate the immediate needs of our burgeoning numbers, the same cannot be said for our future, more “long-term housing” requirements. There has been almost no new cemetery construction in the New York area in the last one hundred years during which time the country’s population has tripled to more than 300,000,000.

Although Woody Allen did say I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying, he was joking when he said it. Death is a subject which many people are not comfortable discussing seriously, but I am, so I will (not too seriously, I hope).

Access to census data through the internet makes it simple to research population and demographic statistics. It’s easy to find out how many people live in a certain place. What’s much harder, I found, was discovering how many people are buried. Most of the on-line cemetery sites do not provide actual numbers of plots, or indicate how much space, if any, is still available. Not having any hard numbers to work with, I leafed through the Hagstrom Atlas for Westchester and counted the cemeteries identified in its pages. I found twenty five cemeteries large enough to be labeled as such. This does not include small graveyards and those adjoining churches, of which there must be dozens more. Anecdotally then, it seems that in Westchester County there have to be at least as many people beneath the ground as there are above (roughly 1,000,000).

There seems to be an industry-wide move away from individual plots to higher density, mausoleum style burial, which would seem to be a reflection of the shortage of vacant land. These new “corpse condos” are a far cry from the large and ornate, older mausoleums which you find in the older parts of the cemetery. And these are nothing as compared with the granddaddy of them all, The Taj Mahal [2].

Since we are all destined to move to smaller accommodations eventually, the manner in which we deal with this is as worthy of concern as any other aspect of housing. Clearly, the notion of individual plots is one whose time is coming to an end. We simply don’t have the land available, unless we start recycling graves, which seems unlikely.

Cremation is gaining in popularity. Urns take up much less space and they can be seen as decorative objects, to be kept in the home. (My own preference would be for my ashes to be kept in the trunk of the car, where I could be put to use, one last time, in the event the car got stuck in the snow) Ultimately, this is a question that is already being answered in terms of highest and best use. In new construction today, the stodgy “formal” rooms of a house (living, dining) are already getting smaller in exchange for big kitchen/family rooms.

We can complete the transition of our outdated floor plans, and respectfully provide for our departed loved ones at the same time. What to do with those urns? Instead of calling it the “Living Room” (where no one really wants to be anyway) let’s call it the “No Longer Living Room” (where no one really wants to be anyway).