Cemeteries, Ecological Restoration, Deep Time, and Net Present Value

I guess I have always seen cemeteries as having very long lifespans. “Lifespan” might seem an odd attribute for a place so closely related to the dead, but it is apt. By “lifespan” I mean how long it can accommodate new burials before it reaches capacity, or in the terminology of cemeterians, uses up its “inventory”. In parts of the world, this is not an issue, as graves are re-used after a few years (when Hamlet is present as a skull is dug up in a graveyard he says: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”, not “Holy crap, we must be in the wrong place, we dug up Yorick!”).

Certainly, some “inactive” cemeteries continue to provide green space and a sense of history. Abandoned pioneer cemeteries in the prairies serve real conservation interests.

But old cemeteries that continue to engage actively with a community, that are spaces sacred to the living whom remember the people buried there, these are truly special.

As I grew up, we would marvel at the oldest graves at the Hopewell Methodist Church’s graveyard, where my mother’s family has been buried for generations. The oldest graves there are for people born 200 years ago; many are marked not by polished granite, but by upright stones of dark black hornblendic amphibolite found in the vicinity, the inscriptions no longer legible. My beloved Aunt Marie was buried there only a few weeks ago, and my father’s grave is there among the Pickens family that he married into.

Boston’s 174-acre Mount Auburn , the nation’s first “Rural Cemetery” is some 185 years old. In the 1830’s, it was a tourist attraction almost as popular as Niagara Falls, and remains popular for birdwatchers, runners, and those who are interested in its history and great horticultural collection.
Mt. Auburn was part of the inspiration for Memorial Ecosystems and Ramsey Creek. Rural Cemeteries, created in the undeveloped borders of cities, were a radical departure from church-yard burials, and were thought to be a boon to both mental and physical health.

Mt. Auburn was different from the rural cemeteries in Europe: much wilder, and more forested. Aaron Sachs in his delightful book Arcadian America notes that European Rural Cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise outside of Paris were too formal for the designers and developers of Mount Auburn, the Parisian cemetery having “dense classical grandeur” and was all-together too approving of human progress and dominance over nature.

Dr. Jacob Bigelow, who procured Mt. Auburn’s first 72 acres put it this way in an 1831 speech , “A Discourse on Burying the Dead”, that he gave to the Boston Society for The Promotion of Useful Knowledge (love the name; this is quoted from Sachs, p.31,32):

“The plant which springs from the earth, after attaining its growth and perpetuating its species, falls to the ground, undergoes decomposition, and contributes its remains to the nourishment of plants around it. The myriads of animals which range the woods or inhabit the air, at length die upon the surface of the earth, and if not devoured by other animals, prepare for vegetation the place which receives their remains. Were it not for this law of nature, the soil would soon be exhausted, the earth’s surface would become a barren waste, and the whole race of organized beings, for want of sustenance, would become extinct…..When nature is permitted to take her course, when the dead are committed to the earth under the open sky, to become early and peacefully bended with their original dust [then mourners, too, might become enfolded] in the surrounding harmonies of the creation.”


My one criticism of these Rural Cemeteries is that they did not plan far enough into the future. The founders and designers of Mount Auburn, Bonaventure in Savannah, and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia (among others) intended for the projects to be “not for the poor purpose of gratifying our vanity or pride….but for the teaching of nature’s lessons, which would spur thoughts full of admonition, of instruction, and slowly but surely , of consolation also’” (Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, quoted by Sachs, p.33). Unfortunately, within 50 years, the Victorians were proudly erecting grandiose monuments, and in some cases (Bonaventure for example) did away with the curvy paths and installed a grid. After 150 years, some were dominated by stone monuments (Laurel Hill has 33,000 monuments on 74 acres). So much for nature teaching lessons.

Ecological restoration can take many decades (even centuries) and can require ongoing interactions with the human community-including significant investments of money: high quality restoration is not cheap. Prairies and savannahs (including very rare piedmont prairies) must be burned indefinitely on a regular basis, or the prairie is lost. How to ensure that a community will support decades or centuries of ecological restoration is a serious question for restorationists.


Linking the project with a durable social institution would seem to be one possibility. 22 American churches are over 300 years old (and most states in the east have half a dozen or more churches over 200). Church-forests in Ethiopia have been protecting natural areas for 1500 years, so this is not a crazy proposition (http://blogs.plos.org/yoursay/2011/02/25/church-forest/ ). The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta created The Honey Creek Woodlands: http://www.honeycreekwoodlands.com , and another associated monastery –Our Lady of the Holy Cross in Berryville Virginia- has followed suit with Cool Spring Natural Cemetery :(https://www.virginiatrappists.org/cemetery/ .

Around 40 colleges in the USA are over 200 years old; the University of Wisconsin is almost 170 years old. UW is the birth-place of scientific ecological restoration; it was here in the mid-1930s that Norman Fassett, John Thomson, John Curtis, Aldo Leopold and others began work on an old field to re-create a native prairie, now known as Curtis Prairie (this is a 2008 article celebrating the prairie’s 75th year) : http://www.botany.wisc.edu/zedler/images/Leaflet_16.pdf .

Very few businesses last 150 years (Germany and especially Japan seem to be the exceptions); only 10 businesses in the USA are over 300 years old, and six of those are family farms.

But cemeteries, even those run as a business and not attached to another institution, have traditionally been long-term proposals, and to me seem to be almost ideal cultural institutions for long-term ecological restoration projects. Part of this has to do with how they can change the way people think about nature (the above quote from Sachs shows that this has been a motivation for creating more natural burial grounds for upwards of 200 years). As much as anything, Conservation Burial is taking the ethos from the rural cemetery movement of 200 years ago, and applying modern conservation science, along with lessons learned from the fate of most rural cemeteries. We are also more attuned to the need for these spaces to be more than graveyards: we want as many weddings and baby blessings as funerals.


A major selling point for Ramsey Creek is that an outside organization holds a conservation easement, and no matter what happens to us, it will always be managed as a natural area. I worry about the project not being big enough to accommodate burials for hundreds of years-especially since we are limiting density, and have a fair amount of acreage unsuitable for burial, including steep slopes and wetlands. We recently paid off a tract of land that more than doubled the size of the project, but the Ramsey Creek Preserve is still small at just less than 80 acres.

To keep a project meaningful for the local community, it is important that 150 years from now, people are still making connections to the natural space, forged by burials being done at that time. We hope to further expand the acreage, despite having plenty for the next few decades. We and our client families are interested in leaving a legacy.

Apparently, not everyone shares this goal.

In the October 2016 issue of ICCFA Magazine (International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association), Daniel Isard, MSFS gave a tutorial on the valuation of cemeteries (for those who might want to sell). Isard is President of The Foresight Companies, LLC, a Phoenix-based consulting company specializing in mergers, acquisitions and valuations.

In the article, he answers a query from a cemetery owner nearing retirement age who is considering selling the property. It is 100 acres, and was started 60 years ago by his parents. The cemetery has 200 sales per year and does 150 interments. Of the 100 acres, 10 are sold out, 6 acres are plotted, and the remaining 84 acres are undeveloped.

Isard’s calculations, observations and recommendations? He figures the real annual income of the cemetery is around $17,778, and calculates that the Net Present Value of that future income is only $71,000, given a discount rate of 25%. He notes that “anything more than 40-100 years of inventory is a wasting asset”, and recommends the owner (if possible with zoning, other restrictions) keep 14 of the undeveloped acreage and sell the rest.

Solid, seemingly math-based business advice. But I have more than one problem with his analysis, the chief of which is the idea that it is stupid and wasteful to create or sell a cemetery with more than 40-100 years of inventory. This is a radical departure from the idea of cemeteries being trans-generational, and semi-permanent. In an industry that markets the idea of “perpetual care”, and the façade of permanence, the proposal that cemeteries are or should be relatively short-term investments might present marketing issues.

Net Present Value (NPV) calculations are a great way to figure out when and whether to purchase equipment, build a new warehouse or invest in more advertising: generally near future decisions.

Basically, NPV includes a “discount rate”. If a course of action meets an alternative action’s or non-action’s return on investment (in this case, Isard set the bar at 25%), it is as-good or better than alternatives . If the NPV is zero-that is the return-on-investment is exactly 25%-it is a wash. If it is a positive number, then it is a good investment given the employed discount rate, because it does better than the alternative.

The problem is when such calculations extend decades, given the power of exponential growth. In 100 years, even a million dollars worth of income that year is worth less than a penny of investment at a discount rate of 25% (http://www.aqua-calc.com/page/discounted-present-value-calculator ). At 10% 1 million dollars 100 years from now is worth around $73.

I am not sure that the NPV calculation Isard provided is correct, or that is the term he wanted. The NPV of $17,778 ten years from now is less than $2000 at a 25% discount rate. If you add each year (beginning with $17778 this year) the total for 10 years is $81,249. Still, a pretty small number whether $71,000 or $90,000 considering the size and sales of the operation.

NPV calculations are notoriously flawed when considering natural resources, investment in pollution control and projects with high, trans-generational social benefits, especially those likely to be more valuable in 50 years than now. An excellent article on the issue, originally in the Vanderbilt Law Review can be found here: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2052&context=facpubs ).

A notorious misuse of NPV was in 1985, when then Office of Management and Budget chief (and future failed Supreme Court nominee) Douglas Ginsberg forced the EPA to throw out a proposed ban on asbestos because of a negative NPV economic analysis. Yes, asbestos would cause a lot of cancers, but the long latency period meant that most of the deaths would be decades hence. So while a life saved now might be worth 1 million dollars, by the time the cancers would happen, given the standard discount rate, a life that many years later should be counted as only worth $22,000 at the time the regulations would come into effect.

It seems what Isard is really saying is that investors want their money back in 4 years or so, and a 25% return per year is ballpark. The higher rate is because cemeteries are going out of style, and thus risky. All of the NPV stuff is fancy sounding window dressing. Given the performance of top rated investment funds over the past few years, such a return still seems exorbitant.

I am not sure how the cemetery owner is making it on 18 grand a year, and doubt this is the case. It is an established cemetery (60 years!) and I am sure all of the up front costs have depreciated decades ago-and contemporary cemetery expenses are “front loaded”. Since most NEW cemeteries can take a decade to become profitable (if ever), all of that risk is gone. What are the demographics in a 50 mile radius of his operation? What is the competition like? Does he take cremated remains? Is his income increasing or decreasing? All of these factors should be considered. Has he considered selling or donating a conservation easement on the undeveloped acreage and creating a conservation burial ground? It could be that his commitment to nature and future generations would considerably boost his existing sales, broadening his demographic appeal.

My advice to that owner is to hold onto the land until he has examined all of his options. Legacy is something a quick buck can never buy, and he could be eating the seed corn of his operation.

But what bothers me the most about the article is the sage advice that cemeteries should not have more than 40-100 years of inventory; this pearl of wisdom seems to be a product of short-term thinking (and a NPV mindset). Cemeteries are not mere “income generating machines” that must meet or exceed income from the latest fad in real-estate development; they have a sacred and social dimension that most cemeterians recognize.

The main rationale for Conservation Burial is that the projects can be trans-generational and personally transformational-and exist long enough (centuries) to restore damaged landscapes: it is impossible to grow an old growth forest in 40 years . Families and communities are connected to these spaces, and to marginalize their value to future generations is a big step in the wrong direction.


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