For Families Struggling to Pay Bills, A Cemetery Plot Becomes an Asset to Sell

Some people facing financial stress are attempting to sell burial plots -- often at steep discounts -- to bring in cash.
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

After Debbie Jenkins got sick, couldn't work and lost two houses to foreclosure, after she burned through her savings, moved into an unheated garage in Crofton and still found herself six months behind on rent, she looked around for something to sell to help pay for the bologna and 60-cent cans of dollar-store vegetables that she, her daughter and three grandchildren live on.

She thought of her jewelry. But when she looked on Internet sales sites, she found more than 16,000 listings. She and her daughter held yard sales and netted $56. Then, somewhere in the boxes of judgments and collection notices piled around her garage home, she hit upon her truly final asset: the deed to a grassy plot of earth in Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Prince George's County, the spot where she once planned to spend eternity.

Jenkins decided to list her two burial plots. "MUST SELL!!!" she wrote in her free Craigslist ad. "Be prepared! Fort Lincoln The Garden of Apostles, rare opportunity to get into this sold-out section!" She included the block site and lawn crypt number, noted that such plots are worth nearly $8,000 and offered them for less than half that. "Great buy!"

Jenkins's offer to sell her final resting place is one of a quickly mounting number of ads that have cropped up in newspapers and on the Internet in recent months as unemployment and heavy debt loads drive more people to scour their homes for assets to sell in hopes of paying the bills of the here-and-now.

"Shoot, I'd probably sell them for $1,500 to be able to eat or fix my car," said Jenkins, 58, whose remaining car -- the other was repossessed -- overheats if driven more than a few miles.

Cemeteries, which typically do not buy back plots, report higher numbers of callers hoping they will. And Internet grave-resale sites -- such as Plot Brokers, Plot Exchange, Grave Solutions and the Cemetery Registry -- say they're not only seeing big increases in listings but hearing more stories of financial desperation.

"We usually hear, 'I'm selling because I hate that son of a gun and the only thing we've got together is burial plots, and I'll be damned if I'm going to be buried next to that so-and-so,' " said Bob Ward, cemetery property specialist with the Cemetery Registry. "Or, 'Grandpa bought these plots in 1932, and I'll be damned if I'm going back to New Jersey to be buried. I live in Arizona.' Now we're hearing, 'I'm losing my house.' Or, 'I'm out of work.' "

Some of the ads are pleading, redolent of economic gloom. "It is imperative that I sell this property immediately," read a recent Craigslist ad for six plots, also in Fort Lincoln Cemetery, with "extra depth and marker privileges." "I was laid off from my consulting firm after the market crash and unemployment benefits are about to run out for this married father of four."

Others are breezier but no less desperate. "PRIME scenic location in the Beautiful Parklawn Cemetery, Rockville, MD. Six lots for sale . . . current value is $4200 per burial lot. Our BARGAIN price is only $2000 per burial lot OR BEST OFFER! . . . Bargain price won't last long. HURRY!" The poster included photos of tranquil grave sites under weeping willow trees. "GORGEOUS!"

Surlina Aaron, 63, listed three of the burial plots she bought for herself and relatives near her parents' graves in Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. Aaron had worked for years as a contractor for the federal government. She had no retirement savings. When she lost her contracting job, she sold her house and used the proceeds to go to graduate school in Illinois to make herself more marketable. She got a master's degree but has yet to find work. And her money has run out.

"I've sold most of my graduate textbooks," she said, voice wavering. "That's what paid the utilities this month." Two of her adult children are helping her out. "So that's why I'm trying to sell my grave plots."

Andy Simpson is not in such dire straits. His wife has a stable job as a teacher. But he lives in Arizona and has no intention of being buried in one of the four plots his father bought years ago in King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church. Simpson was laid off two weeks ago. His 401(k), he said, has lost so much value it is now a 101(k). And he has taxes to pay. "We get nervous, because in the back of our minds, we wonder how long it will take me to find a job," he said. "We're cutting back on everything."

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