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Building boom in big mausoleums, where you'll always have neighbors

Sunday, November 03, 2002

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you're looking to be buried above ground, you're in the right place at the right time.

Pittsburgh is in the midst of a tomb boom that may be unprecedented, catering to legions of mortals who don't want to spend eternity 6 feet under.

Tom Roberts is president of Allegheny Cemetery, which has built a new mausoleum named the Chapel of the Angels. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Allegheny Cemetery has just built its first new community mausoleum in more than 40 years.

Homewood Cemetery is breaking ground Saturday on its biggest mausoleum project in even longer.

And the association representing the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese has a construction program under way adding 18,500 crypts at 10 cemeteries. The planned mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery will be three stories tall, providing the departed a final elevator ride.

Some properties have filled the mausoleum space they built decades ago and have no choice but to expand. Others need to use land more efficiently before they run out of space for below-ground burials.

And nearly all cemeteries are feeling competitive pressure to broaden the options they offer consumers. Even moderate-size cemeteries are adding above-ground space, six or seven shelves of caskets atop one another. The designs include gurgling, ornamental water fountains, bright octagon skylights and other features intended to dispel any cold, eerie feelings that a wall of marble-and-bronze-covered crypts 18 feet high might bring on.

"At one time, mausoleums existed only for the wealthy and famous," said William Howard, director of marketing for Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh's East End, where more than 90 private mausoleums of millionaires and others adorn the property.

"With the new community mausoleums, they've become offered to all," Howard said. "Now the cost can be comparable to ground burial. You can have a nice crypt for the cost of a good used car today."

A number of variations affect the purchase price of mausoleum space -- the height on the wall the most clear-cut among them -- but on average a couple will pay $7,000 to $7,500 for two spots together.

That's somewhat more than the cost of going underground, which includes a combination of burial plot and grave vault,, an opening and closing fee for the grave, and a headstone to mark the spot.

A good place to save money, cemetery operators say, is to opt for a spot on the top tiers of the mausoleum wall, especially if it's down a corridor from the main entrance or on an outside wall.

The second level of a mausoleum wall, or "heart" level, typically costs most. That's followed by the third tier, or "eye" level, and then the "prayer" level on the bottom row. Cheapest are the fourth, fifth levels and on up.

"If people can touch them, they feel more comfortable. It sounds emotional, but it's true," said Thomas Roberts, president of Allegheny Cemetery.

Bob Fells, external chief operating officer for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association, said no one appears to keep track of the number and percentage of mausoleum entombments each year, but there's a general sense that it's growing.

Mausoleum construction companies are building about 150,000 crypts a year, he said, equal to only a small percentage compared with America's 2.4 million annual deaths.

The 1960s and '70s were the first big growth period for community mausoleums, Fells said. As more and more people who signed up for them have died, it's educated their friends and relatives about the possibility in a way they might not have considered before.

"When one of your parents goes, the first parent, then you really start thinking about it," said Michael Frangoulis Jr., 47, of Shadyside, who has reserved space alongside his wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law in Homewood Cemetery's planned Quiet Reflections Chapel Mausoleum.

His father went into an outdoor garden crypt for veterans when he died two years ago, and his remains will be moved next fall when the new mausoleum with 560 casket spaces opens. Frangoulis said he and his sister are "following my parents' lead" when it comes to choosing entombment, but there are good reasons for it also.

"It will be heated and a lot easier for family members to come and view and return for the holidays," he said. "It just seems a lot more convenient."

Fewer in-ground burials

Local cemetery owners estimate the percentage of the population preferring entombment at somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent. The cemeteries often nudge people in that direction with pre-construction discounts lasting several years to provide funds to build the mausoleum.

Some alter pricing policies to reflect their interest in lengthening the active lives of their property. An acre of cemetery land might accommodate about 8,000 mausoleum crypts compared with 1,000 to 1,200 ground burials.

"By design, I have some crypts I sell where I lowered prices with that intention [of steering people toward above-ground burial]," said Art Ognibene, manager of Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, owned by Cornerstone Family Services.

"If Mt. Lebanon people or South Hills people knew how little space I have left [for ground burial], they'd be lined up out the door," Ognibene said, estimating that about 10 years' worth of traditional burials remain.

At Calvary Cemetery bordering Greenfield and Hazelwood, the largest property of the Catholic Cemeteries Association, only 15 to 20 years of ground burials remain, said the association's executive director, Annabelle McGannon.

That's the primary motivation for the planned 6,302-space mausoleum, slightly bigger than the existing one.

"There's no question it's a way to extend the life of the cemetery," McGannon said.

There are some cultural and ethnic aspects to the decision as well. Catholics have historically shown more tendency toward above-ground burial than Protestants. Entombments are more common in Italy, with its rocky soil, than almost anywhere else in Europe, and Pittsburgh has a large Italian population.

The number of in-ground burials in the 15 diocesan cemeteries has actually declined over the past decade, McGannon said, while entombments increased by 46 percent. She said 737 of 4,110 burials were above ground in 2001-02.

Sacred Heart Cemetery in Monongahela opened the newest diocesan mausoleum in September, preceded the month before by one at Resurrection Cemetery in Moon.

Besides Calvary, others are planned at All Saints in Braddock Hills, Good Shepherd in Monroeville, Holy Savior in Richland, St. Stanislaus in Shaler, St. Joseph's in North Versailles, Queen of Heaven in Peters and Our Lady of Hope in Tarentum.

Homewood Cemetery hadn't constructed a public mausoleum since the 1950s until this year opening a small garden mausoleum -- meaning no interior lobby or corridors. Its 96 crypts are built into a hillside wall to accommodate one specific group, the Jewish population, which by religious law is to be covered over with earth when buried.

The bigger Quiet Reflections Chapel Mausoleum is to be built with indoor fountain, heating and air conditioning at the corner of the cemetery near South Dallas Avenue and Willard Street. Seven pin oak trees presently marked with red X's are to be cut down to make room beside the cemetery's Greek Orthodox section.

A billboard facing Dallas still advertises "pre-construction discounts," though they're not as generous as the $3,000 savings offered to the first 50 families when the marketing began three years ago.

Howard, who manages the cemetery's sales staff, said about 20 percent of 560 spaces were sold, which is only about half of what he would have hoped by now. That hasn't deterred the cemetery from beginning construction Saturday.

"We feel if we build it, they'll come," Howard said, noting it makes a difference to many people when they can see the building itself instead of pictures.

Tales of the crypts

Allegheny Cemetery placed the first entombments last month in its new Chapel of the Angels Mausoleum. The structure houses 1,036 interior and exterior crypts in a building deeply recessed on the cemetery property adjacent to Mossfield Street. More than 25 percent of its spaces have been sold, Roberts said.

The Lawrenceville cemetery's Temple of Memories Mausoleum has been constructed in six phases since 1962, providing 8,000 crypts that are nearly all filled. Space in the new mausoleum is less expensive, partly because it has so many more crypts available but also because it was built without a heating and air-conditioning system.

The environment felt cool on a recent fall day, but Roberts said it won't ever be harshly cold with the solid walls and prominent skylights.

He said most people don't linger long enough in a mausoleum to need heating or air conditioning.

The cemetery invested instead in larger-than-life bronze figures of angels covering walls both inside and outside the mausoleum, built by Pittsburgh-based Gibraltar Mausoleum Construction Co., a subsidiary of Matthews International Corp. A crypt covered by part of an angel on its front costs more than one without.

One early crypt purchaser, Richard Scuro, 53, of Clermont, Fla., formerly of Penn Hills, said he and his wife considered buying one of those interior angel crypts before opting for a more modest wall space outside.

"We started thinking about it and realized we're going to be dead, and who cares if you're part of the angel," Scuro reasoned. "In essence, you're not going to know anything."

He and his wife, Anna Marie, whose Bloomfield relatives are entombed at Allegheny's older mausoleum, are on a payment plan for themselves and their daughter, Christine. She died last year, and was temporarily in the other mausoleum until she was moved to Chapel of the Angels last month.

Michael Kearl, a sociology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, who teaches and writes about death practices, says mausoleums make sense in the modern era because they can be equipped to make use of new technology.

It's only a matter of time, he speculated, before the cemetery operators install audio and video equipment to produce tangible reminders of the person inside the nearby crypt. For now, people have to rely on their memories, but in a setting that also has modern relevance.

"We're living on top of one another in life, so why not be in high-rises in death?" Kearl mused. "I can't do it by myself, like the elite traditionally did, but together we can purchase a deal."

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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