Grave Matters

The Cost of the Longest Vacation You'll Ever Take

photograph by Jana Birchum

The last piece of property you'll ever need will probably be the most expensive.

Much has been written about Austin's high real estate prices, but dollar for dollar, it's cheaper to buy a lot to build a place to live than it is to purchase a plot of land to plant yourself when you're dead.

For example, a high-dollar undeveloped lot on Island Cove, a scenic drive overlooking Lake Austin, is listed at $714,285 per acre, according to local real estate sources. With 43,560 square feet in an acre, you'd be paying about $16.40 per square foot. In a more affordable part of town, a lot on Craigwood Drive, just east of U.S. Highway 183 off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, recently sold for $5,953 per acre, which boils down to just under 14 cents per square foot.

Burial plots in Austin, on the other hand, start around $15 per square foot and can run up to $47, depending on where you choose to stake out your final nest. Add in the cost of funeral services, a casket and tombstone, then you'll find at least one reason for the old axiom: You can't take it with you.

But for many, taking it with you is not important, says Eric Pierce Futch, a funeral director at Cook-Walden Funeral Homes, a subsidiary of Houston-based funeral giant Service Corporation International (SCI). What is important -- and more often for the family of the deceased than the departed themselves -- is leaving behind some record of a life.

"I don't think it's an accident that we've had burial ceremonies for 5,000 years. People have gone to great lengths to be remembered," Futch says, pointing to the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal as two examples of the extravagance some have taken with their grave sites.

Where Do You Go When You're Gone?

One of the nicest bone orchards in Austin is the Texas State Cemetery on East Seventh and Navasota -- a beautiful wooded glade featuring sculptures by Elisabet Ney and Pompeo Coppini. This historic site, established in 1851, recently has undergone an extensive restoration project to make it even more lovely. Aside from the scenery, you'd share the ground with several famous neighbors, including such notable Texans as Stephen F. Austin and W.A.A. "Bigfoot" Wallace. But you must be a state official to qualify for a plot.

Those without the money or family able to pay for burial may be eligible for a simple, unassuming grave in the Travis County International Cemetery, a six-acre lot located at the corner of Axel Lane and Wilcab Road in East Austin. Juanita Vargas, social services supervisor for Travis County Human Services, says that the county maintains the cemetery, and the funeral home handling the service "is paid just a flat fee, basically to cover their minimum expenses." The county pays for about 100 burials a year, Vargas says.

While there are dozens of family graveyards and church cemeteries in Austin and Travis County, you usually have to be a member of that family or church to make a reservation. For other folks, the choice falls to the city-owned or the privately-owned cemeteries.

The City of Austin owns five cemeteries: Austin Memorial Park, Evergreen, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, and Plummers. Kay Ann Yaklin, superintendent of operations for Austin-based Intercare Corp., says her company has operated the cemeteries for the city since 1990. Currently, she says, grave sites are for sale only in Austin Memorial Park and Evergreen, but the owners of empty plots in the other cemeteries occasionally put their land on the market.

The price for a space at Evergreen, which lies on East 12th Street off Airport Blvd., is $770, or $22 per square foot for an average 42-inch-by-10-foot plot. Prices are the same throughout the cemetery, Yaklin says, whether or not the grave has a nice view. "There's no distinguishing amount if it's next to a tree, a road or a water sprinkler," she says.

At Austin Memorial Park, on the west side in a nice plush area bounded by Hancock Drive and the MoPac Expressway, burial space runs about $950, or about $27.14 per square foot. Yaklin says the city has a contractor to maintain the grounds and graves. Gene Bagwell, president and owner of Intercare Corp., says that Austin Memorial Park, which covers 85 acres, is about 30-35% occupied, while Evergreen's 30 acres are around 70% full.

Easter/Palm Sunday decorations at the Assumption Cemetery in South Austin
photograph by Jana Birchum

Assumption Cemetery, which lies west off the I-35 access road just south of St. Edward's University, offers both a nice view of the city and some of the more affordable prices in town. According to grounds foreman Sergio Aguilera, about half of the Assumption's 16 acres is full. Costs for a 40-inch-by-9-foot space run $450, $550, or $600 (about $15, $18.33, or $20 per square foot, respectively), depending on the location, Aguilera says. Gravesites that have walkways behind the headstone, where the family can plant a tree or place a bench, are naturally more expensive, he says.

If the family desires an upright tombstone, instead of a flat monument that fits flush with the ground, prices run $750, $850, or $1,000 (about $22.50, $25.50, or $30 per square foot, respectively), once again based on location. These spaces are 40 inches by 10 feet. Assumption also has a mausoleum, where bodies are stacked vertically like drawers in a file cabinet, at prices ranging from $2,250 to $5,000. Care for the grave or mausoleum space is figured into the cost, Aguilera says.

Onion Creek Memorial Park lies about 10 miles south of downtown Austin, not far from the Onion Creek Country Club. General Manager Bob Thoreson says the prices for a 44-inch-by-9-foot space in his cemetery runs $775 for a plot with flat monument to $895 for a grave with an upright tombstone. Prices include perpetual care. "We periodically run prearrangement specials where we have a special on the adjoining spaces," Thoreson says. "For example, in the flat marker section, we're currently running a prearrangement package for two spaces at $900."

Thoreson says about 7.5 acres of the 9-acre lot are available for new customers, and that Onion Creek does not have a mausoleum but is considering building one.

`Cadillac' of Cemeteries

SCI's Cook-Walden is the biggest private cemetery provider in Austin. It's also the most expensive. SCI maintains three graveyards in the area: Forest Oaks in Oak Hill -- which is at 60% capacity on its 16 acres -- and the two-cemeteries-in-one Memorial Hill/Capital Parks, which lies just west of Pflugerville, and is currently filling only 25% of its 35 acres. SCI, the largest "death care" provider in the world (see main story), operates some 250 cemeteries around the country and nearly 3,000 funeral homes around the globe, says Cook-Walden funeral director Futch.

Cook-Walden offers several interment options, but a single burial space at one of the company's graveyards runs $1,755, including the perpetual care fee. For a 45-inch-by-10-foot space -- that comes to $46.80 per square foot -- about twice as much as city-owned cemeteries. For a lawn crypt, which is similar to the grave but has cement walls underground and can hold one or two caskets, the price is $1,995. That's prime real estate, but Futch says you get what you pay for.

"It's like a Cadillac, a Lincoln, and a Volkswagen," he says, comparing Cook-Walden's prices to the other cemeteries.

The options that Cook-Walden provide are designed for those who buy a plot before they actually need it. First off, Cook-Walden is a one-stop "death care" shop, handling the preparation of the corpse, funeral arrangements, burial, and care for the grave from here to eternity. There's a travel protection plan, so if you die anywhere outside of a 75-mile radius of your home -- including any foreign countries -- Cook-Walden will handle the arrangements to get your body back where it belongs. And there's a relocation plan that allows you to transfer your plot to another SCI-owned cemetery if you move to another part of the country.

"If you buy at some cemeteries and circumstances alter to where you have to go to another state or something, by and large you're out of luck," Futch says. "If you get an opportunity to go to Denver or Florida or California, it's nice to say, `Hey, I can take it with me. I can transfer to one of their other locations.'"

The Cook-Walden cemeteries are nice, well-maintained park-like affairs, but are devoid of the charm of many other local cemeteries. That's mostly because of the lack of upright tombstones -- or memorialization, as Futch calls them. That's partially to prevent vandalism -- "It's no fun to spray paint a flat marker," he says -- and to ensure uniformity among graves.

"You're never going to have to worry about somebody putting the San Jacinto monument up next to you," Futch says. "You're never going to have to worry about clutter, you're never going to have to worry about toppled monuments." (What Futch doesn't say is that it's cheaper for SCI to maintain flat markers since they don't require as much trimming and weeding).

Cook-Walden also offers a mausoleum. Price for a space in the indoor mausoleum, in which the name plate faces inside the building, is $4,595. Spaces for the outdoor mausoleum, where the memorialization faces outside, prices range from $3,295 to $3,895. The bodies are stacked five high, with the top level being the least expensive and eye-level costing the most.

The Cremation Option

With land prices what they are, more and more people these days are deciding to have themselves cremated after death. The ashes can be scattered to the winds, or the urn can be kept in an honored spot in your home.

Some choose to have their urn buried or kept in a niche in a mausoleum. Yaklin says that at the City of Austin cemeteries there are small burial spaces -- which also double as graves for children -- where cremation remains, or "cremains," can be interred. These spaces go for $150.

At Assumption Cemetery, niche spaces for cremation urns are priced at $850. Onion Creek Memorial Park offers two options: burial spaces which run from $475 to $695 and include urn and marker, or a "columbarium," a "miniature mausoleum for cremated remains."

"The package that we have includes the niche, interment urn, a bronze name-and-date plaque that actually bolts onto the granite face -- as opposed to stick-on letters -- and the perpetual care fee," Thoreson says. "The total package for the columbarium is $895."

At Cook-Walden's cemeteries, niches in the mausoleum for cremated remains run from $1,300 to $1,700, with prices depending on the position of the niche and the style of memorialization. Futch says Cook-Walden also is planning a cremation garden, which will resemble a nature trail and rock garden where the urns are designed to look like stones to fit in with the landscaping.

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