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A Boom in High-Rise Burials

Prompted by dwindling space, cemeteries across the Southland are building giant mausoleums. Marketers cite practical advantages; critics see effort to reclaim profits lost to cremation.

November 13, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The space per person is not particularly roomy, usually 32 inches wide, 26 inches high and 7 feet long. But the three-level building itself is huge for its kind, prices are competitive and seismic safety is state of the art.

About a year before scheduled completion, backers say that more than half of the 8,998 units already have been sold in this $5-million project in East Los Angeles. Marketing pitches emphasize that residency can be long--very, very long.

Possibly forever inside a crypt at Gethsemane Mausoleum in Calvary Cemetery.

That giant construction project by the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese represents a new, larger dimension in interment. The concrete-and-granite honeycomb also is part of a mausoleum building boom that is changing the look of and traditions at religious, nonsectarian and for-profit cemeteries across Southern California.

The prospect of aging baby boomers crowding cemeteries as they once packed college campuses reinforces concerns about a projected shortage of burial space in many urban cemeteries. So, to ensure what the industry unsentimentally refers to as enough "inventory" 20 years from now, cemeteries are building or planning new mausoleums, and in unprecedented sizes.

"I call it an apartment house where nobody knows their neighbors," said Gerald A. Larue, a USC professor emeritus of religion who teaches a class about death and dying. The new high-rise mausoleums, he added, reflect the mass standardization throughout American culture. "It's in keeping with the way we live anyway."

Because Southern California often leads the nation in lifestyle trends, Larue and other experts predict that the dozen or so large mausoleum projects being built or planned here may be the national model for the future.

New economies of scale operate in mausoleum hallways half as long as football fields and in vertical stacks of seven final resting places per floor, three floors per building. New marketing and pricing plans seek to reverse social attitudes that say mausoleums are mainly for the affluent and that burial in the ground is somehow more proper than sliding a coffin into a wall shelf, called a crypt or tomb.

Crypts inside the large, so-called community mausoleums are being pitched as an eco-friendly alternative to cremation--which has gained in popularity over the past two decades, most dramatically on the West Coast.

Critics, however, suggest that mausoleum crypts are the funeral industry's attempt to recapture profits being lost to cremation, which generally costs less than traditional burials.

Funerals touch on all sorts of emotional, social, religious, superstitious and economic issues. However, the acceptance of cremation despite many religious and social taboos shows that customs can change with surprising speed in contemporary America, especially when pushed by savvy marketing, scholars say.

"Mores can switch very quickly, within a generation," said Kenneth Iserson, director of the bioethics program at the University of Arizona Medical School and author of the 1994 book "Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies." So he expects mausoleum construction to increase in coming years.

There is no immediate regionwide lack of burial space, despite spot shortages. But looking ahead, the industry knows that it is getting more difficult and expensive to start large new cemeteries in metropolitan areas.

Even with multimillion-dollar construction costs, big mausoleums are profitable alternatives that do not need as much maintenance as lawn graves. They also help ensure sales of such services as embalming and hearse processions that might be lost with cremation.

Under an industry rule of thumb, an acre of land can hold about 1,500 graves with ground plaques, fewer if upright headstones are used. In comparison, a mausoleum on that acre usually can hold at least 5,000 crypts and upward of 15,000 in some of the new and more ambitious projects. (The mausoleums also have niches for ash urns.)

For a striking example, consider the peach-colored Sunset Mission Mausoleum, just inside the main gate at Inglewood Park Cemetery. On its three floors, it contains about 17,000 crypts, including a modest one whose plaque holds a musical note for singer Ella Fitzgerald, who died in June. A corridor on the basement level is 215 feet long, with 70 rows of crypts, many of them sold in advance of "need."

When subsequent phases are finished over the next six years, the project will have room for a total of 30,000 caskets and several thousand cremation urns, all on 2.1 acres. That will make it the largest mausoleum in the nation, according to Donald Eiesland, Inglewood Park's president, who recently was president of the Virginia-based International Cemetery and Funeral Assn.

(About 5% of those crypts are being built roomier for large people whose caskets won't fit in a regular space. "It's a queen-sized bed compared to a regular bed," said David Wharmby, Inglewood's senior vice president of marketing.)

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