Out of Cash and Forced to Dig Deep
For Families Struggling to Pay the Bills, A Cemetery Plot Becomes an Asset to Sell

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."

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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