“Valor Marghulis” – All “Song of Ice and Fire” fans know it means “All Men Must Die” in High Valyrian. At some point, we must recognize we’re all going to die, but how do we protect the sanctity of death rituals in a period of rising death industry costs? As someone who recently lost three close family members, I have learned about the monetary price of death and have played a large role with my relatives’ funerals and burials. While I have the solace that all of my relatives lived passed eighty-years old and they lived relatively prosperous lives, I could not imagine managing the mortuary, the cemetery, or property transfer duties if one of them passed away unexpectedly. When my father passed away last October at age 87 due to associated Alzheimer’s disease health disorders, which plagued him for the last five years, my family already performed all of the due diligence in creating a family trust, recording his end of life wishes, like “do not resuscitate” choices, and purchasing a plot in the cemetery where his parents and siblings are resting.
Personally, I believe in eco-friendly ways to dispose of a body. If I could, I would want to return the favor and give my body to the fishes that I like to eat in the form of sushi. The latest new eco-fad is burying dead bodies without a casket so they can decompose faster back into the earth. However, my mother is not an environmentalist and we visited Mountain View Cemetery too many times before selecting a pair of burial plots for her and my dad. For those of you unfamiliar with Mountain View Cemetery, it’s located in the middle of Oakland and it’s old, which means famous people are buried there. A stretch in Mountain View is called “millionaires’ row,” where tombs are occupied by famous Californians like railroad baron, Charles Crocker, steel and aluminum producer, Henry Kaiser, founding U.C. President, Henry Durant, and a several other 19th century mayors, governors and rich people.
The price of a burial plot is like any other piece of property. The value is primarily based on location, location, and location. In Mountain View Cemetery, the importance of location is based on the view, the proximity to millionaires’ row, or the improvements on the plots. Sound familiar? While burial plots rarely gentrify, because it is difficult to legally displace buried bodies, the value of a plot can change if a famous person is buried nearby or if a new structure obstructs the wonderful San Francisco Bay view. As you can imagine, selecting a burial site for virtual eternity is not an easy selection. My mother hemmed and hawed on which plots she wanted until she finally decided on two relatively expensive plots in a newly developed area which was being gobbled up by Chinese families due to the positive Feng Shui. However, given my mom’s finicky nature, I asked Sarah, the associate who shown us around Mountain View, about the ramifications if my mom decided to change her mind. I did not like the response Sarah provided that we were stuck with the plots but the cemetery would buy back the plots minus ten percent. I had to ask whether or not I could sell the plots to a third party and Sarah told me that it was fair game and although, it’s a practice that not common, it’s completely legal. Then Sarah proceeded to tell me about how the plots we selected went on sale two years ago and have increased in value 400%.
Many of us have heard the stories on how grieving relatives are taken advantage by all facets of the death industry: Mortuaries gouge prices for caskets, cemeteries demanding quick decisions on plots, and even florists upselling the reefs. Rather than dealing with price negotiation during a distressed emotional state of mind, many people (with enough resources) purchase their own plots ahead of time. Like how a family trust can prevent tens of thousands in probate costs or a coffin purchased with a third party can easily slash costs by 50%, purchasing a plot early might be acting like a bad capitalist, but you can save money in the long run. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to speculate the right time when one should purchase a burial plot. As a result, many people need to sell their unused plots for quick cash.
Only two months elapsed from the purchase of the plots to my Dad’s passing, so we did not wrestle with sunken costs. However, land speculation in the form of burial plots really got me thinking. If there isn’t a regulation on plot speculation, there should be. I think most analysts would agree that a 400% return in two years is a good investment. I also think that the moral compass would tell you not to prey on the vulnerable, but the death industry is expensive (or profitable pending on your point of view) and despite my observation on the potential gold mine with desirable burial plots, the death industry is highly regulated. There are regulations within the death industry like the specific roles, legal responsibilities and licensures of coroners and morticians, or the internal and external policies regulating how cemeteries can transport buried bodies.
So, is flipping a burial plot the same as flipping a house? Sarah’s response would indicate “yes.” My research would say “no.” Surprisingly, “selling burial plots” or “flipping burial plots” results in numerous pages in a simple Google search. As Sarah indicated, it is perfectly legal for a plot owner to sell his/her plot to a third party for an agreed amount. Apparently the business of flipping burial plots is not a new phenomenal – it just hasn’t picked up steam. Online narratives range from exploiting those who need quick cash to targeting those speculating in real estate but do not have enough cash flow to flip homes. Craigslist appears to be the quick and dirty one-to-one transaction space (there are currently 58 plots for sale on the Los Angeles area and 29 in the Bay Area) but one can bid for a plot on eBay as well (only 66 for the State of California). These numbers pale in comparison to homes for sale as Zillow currently lists 10,764 homes for sale in Los Angeles alone.
Like any legitimate business owner, if someone wanted to flip burial plots as a profession, they would have to file with the Secretary of State’s office for incorporation as a LP, LLC or Sole Proprietor – at least in California, as it varies from State to State. However, like any asset, at what point does burial plots become part of someone’s asset portfolio? They are already included in personal financial portfolios but generally not as speculative investments. As developable land becomes scarcer in urban areas we have already witnessed the dearth of affordable housing as developers want to speculate on the highest return. As Baby Boomers continue to age, higher death rates are on the horizon and the online narratives and Sarah’s anecdotal evidence indicates that burial plots value is on the rise. Burial policies are like city planning policies. Most people don’t know they exist but for those who know, it can be a very powerful and profitable process. But until we have regulations that stop the speculation of burial plots, I say, “Valor Dohaeris,” which means, “All men must serve,” which is cause we must promote to stop plot speculation that appears inevitable if left to market forces.