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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.

Jenkins has little left to cut back on. In the garage she calls home, her clothes hang from the garage door brackets in the ceiling. Carpet scraps cover the concrete floor. A giant TV, a walnut dresser and a porcelain lamp are the remnants of what she called the good life.

She worked in real estate for 33 years, she explained. In the boom years of 2004-06, she and her daughter, Dawn, 27, worked as partners and each year saw their earnings double. They owned a flower shop. They had hundreds of listings. In 2006, each woman made six figures. They leveraged heavy debt, buying three dream houses with subprime mortgages. Jenkins drove a Corvette. She belonged to Crofton Country Club, around the corner from the garage she now rarely leaves.

Then, in October 2007, Jenkins contracted a staph infection that grew serious, forcing her to bed for seven months. With no money coming in, her savings were soon depleted. She sold the flower shop at a loss. No longer able to pay for health insurance, Jenkins stopped taking her blood pressure and asthma medications and promptly had three minor strokes and two heart attacks.

She and her daughter lost it all -- houses, cars, other worldly possessions. "Everything I worked for my entire life is gone," she said, her eyes reddening. They moved one year ago to the rented house. Dawn, her two children and the niece she is raising live inside, leaving Jenkins in the garage.

By the time Jenkins felt well enough to go back to work, the real estate market had crashed. When five listings fell through July 31 -- listings they had hoped would help buy formula for 9-month-old Jayda and pay a $175 doctor's bill for one of the older girls -- Jenkins decided it was time to part with the grave sites.

She and her first husband bought the sites nearly 40 years ago, back when cemetery salesmen went door to door. Back then, as a young wife in Kentlands, having a plot in Fort Lincoln was all the rage, she said, and an expensive, pre-lined crypt in the prestigious Garden of the Apostles area brought serious bragging rights.

These days, no one sells door to door. And sales of what are now called "pre-need" burial plots have fallen off because of the recession, said Mike Doherty, vice president of Fairfax Memorial Park. That, he warns, is bad strategy. "Death is not optional," he said. "There's no way out. If you plan for yourself, it's a great service to the family. . . . People should not be putting that off."

Despite the deep discount, Jenkins has had only one inquiry since posting her ad, and it was bogus.

As her daughter filled out bankruptcy forms at the kitchen table -- she works part time as a bartender at a place so shaky that her paycheck often bounces -- Jenkins contemplated what she will do once the plots have sold. "When I do die," she said bitterly, "just throw me in a trash can."

Miles away, amid the rolling hills of Fort Lincoln Cemetery, not far from the Garden of Tranquility and in front of some apostle statues, Lawn Crypt 3524 in Block 23 sits for sale, waiting for a buyer who will one day rest in peace.

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