What do you do with burial plots you’re never going to use? That was the question two different readers asked me in quick succession.
Twenty-three years ago, Jan Lorko, now 65, and her then-husband purchased two mausoleum crypts in Ohio. No longer married, neither one wants them. “Finances are tight for both my ex and me,” Lorko says. Diana Wilson Wing, 63, is trying to sell two burial plots in Anchorage, Alaska, for her 100-year-old mother, and a crypt in Baytown, Texas, which belonged to her late aunt. Both Lorko and Wing want to dispose of these sites — but how?
One reason it’s not so easy to dispose of burial plots and crypts and why cemeteries are reluctant to buy them back: the growing popularity of cremations, which today outnumber burials and which cost an average of 40 percent less. “I’d guess that there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of graves that are never going to be used,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. “It works in the buyer’s favor.” I consulted with funeral industry experts and others to come up with a plan for Lorko and Wing.
1. Reach out to the cemetery
You’ll need some answers and some paperwork. First, find out whether you’re allowed to sell a site on the secondary market and how helpful the cemetery will be. If you choose to go with a broker (more on this in a moment), will the cemetery work with them? “The cemetery isn’t making money from a secondhand sale,” Slocum says. “Some are more cooperative than others.” Is there a transfer fee? If so, how much? Maybe the grave can be double depth — a good selling point. What are similar sites selling for? Get a copy of the deed if you don’t have one, and keep a record of all of your correspondence with the cemetery. (Find a longer checklist of Things to Know & Do Before You List on the cemeteryexchange.com website.) Wing found out that the Alaska cemetery could list her two plots, charging a transfer fee of $225 per transaction.
2. Consider a broker
A number of companies, including PlotBrokers.com and GraveSolutions.com, will, for a fee and possibly a commission, list your property for sale and handle the transaction. If you go this route, you’ll sign paperwork giving the broker permission to work on your behalf. Listings can last up to three years or until the property sells. Alternatively, or simultaneously, you can list it yourself on sites like The Cemetery Exchange, GraveSales.com and even eBay, handling the transaction yourself. Lorko, who had already listed with Plot Brokers, put her sites on The Cemetery Exchange. Wing hasn’t listed her sites yet, in part because she first needs to prove that she’s her aunt’s heir.
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3. Price it right
Go at least 20 percent below the cemetery’s current price. “If you get your pricing too close to the cemetery’s, there’s no incentive,” says Maureen Walton, owner of The Cemetery Exchange. Go even lower if possible. Lorko, whose crypts are valued by the cemetery at $21,000, priced them at $12,500 on Plot Brokers; she listed them at $17,000 on The Cemetery Exchange, in part to recoup additional expenses she’d incur.
4. Expect scammers
One red flag is a long-distance call, says Walton: “If the plot is in Georgia, you’d expect to see a local area code.” Phone calls tend to be more genuine than emails or texts, she says, adding that scammers will text in an effort to get your personal financial information.
5. Give it away
If all else fails, and if money isn’t an issue, you can donate a plot to charity such as a religious congregation, a local veterans group or an organization that aids the homeless. To get a tax deduction, you’ll need an appraisal, which a cemetery or broker may supply for a fee.
Eventually, it comes down to waiting. And waiting. And often waiting some more. As of this writing, Lorko hasn’t sold her sites, and Wing hasn’t listed hers. Patience is key. And let this be a lesson about buying a burial plot long before you’ll need it: This real estate can be as hard to shake free of as death itself.
Jean Chatzky is an award-winning personal finance journalist and best-selling author of books including Women with Money: The Judgment-Free Guide to Creating the Joyful, Less Stressed, Purposeful (and Yes, Rich) Life You Deserve.