Boston’s Other Housing Crisis: The Cemeteries

Prime real estate is getting snatched up, space is dwindling, and people are paying more and more for less and less. Think it’s hard living in the city? Try dying here.

Densely packed graves at St. Michael Cemetery in Boston. / Photo by Webb Chappell

To the untrained eye, Greater Boston’s most illustrious cemetery, the nearly 200-year-old Mount Auburn, looks full: There are plaques, pillars, and sarcophagi in all directions and statuary posing in every copse of trees. But if you ride around the cemetery with CEO Dave Barnett, you begin to spot the once-imperceptible openings. That’s because Barnett has become an expert in finding new grave space in a cemetery—and a city—that is quickly running out of room.

Barnett bears more than a passing resemblance to Mister Rogers, with a narrow face that comes to rest in a smile and a zeal for touring guests around the neighborhood. When I recently rode through the Cambridge cemetery with him, he showed me some of the accommodations he’s come up with for new occupants. We visited a series of granite walls erected along the perimeter with space for hundreds of names where there was once a chain-link fence, and for as many burials where there was once a little-used perimeter road. The project, he says, cost around $3 million 10 years ago, mostly for granite, but has so far brought in “at least four times that.”

We drove along roads that he’s winnowed down to one-ways and walked down former one-ways he’s converted to even narrower footpaths—work that has created more room for slim plots, so long as you don’t mind resting eternally, he says, at “a non-traditional angle.” By the end of our drive, he was excitedly spotting new possibilities.

Back in 1993, Mount Auburn delivered its own terminal diagnosis, estimating that it would run out of space to sell in no more than 10 years. Thanks in part to Barnett’s and his predecessor’s creativity, it has not. At least not yet.

Of course, privately owned Mount Auburn is by no means the only cemetery in the Boston area feeling the crunch. To conserve space, in the 1990s Boston limited its municipal cemeteries to city residents and also stopped selling “pre-need,” meaning they’ll only sell you a grave if you’re already dead. Still, today two of the city of Boston’s three active cemeteries—Mount Hope and Evergreen—are currently sold out of traditional plots. Thomas Sullivan, Boston’s general superintendent of cemeteries, estimates that the open section of the third, Fairview, will be full by 2035. “We’ve talked about possibly re-plotting some roadways at Mount Hope that are not very active,” he says. “Being creative, I think we can be confident we’re okay for the next 30 to 40 years .”

A similar predicament is unfolding in Cambridge, where the 66-acre municipal cemetery, which is next to Mount Auburn, announced last year that it had sold all but 400 plots. Once they’re gone, the dead may be priced out of a city that has been bought up by cash-rich universities. There will be no other option but the suburbs. “We recognize that in the not-so-distant future,” Owen O’Riordan, commissioner of the Cambridge Department of Public Works, has said, “we’ll have to look at alternate spaces and not bury people in the city, and have them go someplace else.”

And yet “someplace else” is filling up fast, too. Across the river, the private Newton Cemetery is down to its last 10 acres but is working with an architect to find “areas to infill, old paths and roads we could repurpose, and other little pockets of space,” says president Mary Ann Buras. Waltham spent $1.5 million to create gravesites in the only unplotted area of Mount Feake Cemetery, which was down to fewer than 200 plots.

The population in Boston is more than 10 times greater than it was when Mount Auburn opened its gates in 1831, and the scramble for space for the living puts a premium on what’s reserved for the dead. Here and in  America’s other urban centers, the real estate market for final resting places is running low on inventory just in time for the senescence of the populous baby boomers, and as supply sinks we can expect prices to rise. The upshot is that dying in Boston, not unlike living here, only grows more expensive. Already, the prices of graves are among the highest in the nation. What will we all do to survive the city’s other housing crisis?

Not unlike living in Boston, dying here only grows more expensive.

I first got interested in the space shortage below ground because of my experience with the original housing crisis above it. Like most Bostonians, I spend way too much time worrying about real estate. I live in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood where the average condo is as far out of my budget range as a spot in Elon Musk’s Mars colony. And one of the reasons I keep paying rent here is because of the proximity to Forest Hills Cemetery, an extravagant 275 acres of gorgeous green space where I love to walk my dog. One sunny day there, I started thinking: I sometimes feel like I’m killing myself to live in this city, but what kind of real estate could I afford here if I were dead?

I set out to answer my own question. Of course, I wasn’t planning to buy: I’m only 29, run 30 miles a week, and look both ways when crossing the street. At the risk of jinxing myself, I hope not to be buried anytime soon. But I admit that I’m not above real estate voyeurism. So in my quest for the ultimate real estate acquisition, I started in one of the nation’s most desirable ZIP codes for the deceased: Mount Auburn. And since I was already way more than 6 feet over my head, I figured there was no harm in asking about the best property they had. It turned out to be a $350,000 plot (though it could cost more, depending on how a purchaser chose to develop it) on a hill overlooking the Victorian-era Asa Gray Garden, the horticultural gem in Mount Auburn’s crown. Like some of the sprawling mansions just a few blocks away on Brattle Street, this one’s for a big family.

When I asked about the other end of the spectrum, I learned that the most economical option for full-body burial—a double-depth grave for two caskets at a cost of $20,000—would afford me the right to an unassuming “lawn marker” flush with the ground, while a two-person grave with space for an upright memorial would run me no less than $75,000.

For better or worse, not everywhere is Mount Auburn, of course. St. Joseph Cemetery, in West Roxbury, says online that it charges between $4,000 and $6,500 for a two-person grave. I called the front desk to ask for an explanation of the range. “Location, location, location,” said the woman who answered, “just like any other real estate.” The most desirable section, she told me, is the one by the entrance, making it more accessible. (It seems that walk scores matter in cemeteries, too.) The most affordable plots are the newest, outside the cemetery’s historical core. Similar logic holds at Forest Hills, where plots in the historical section start at $20,000. Single-occupant dwellings in the new section range in cost from $4,950 to $12,500. “Those upper-end graves are typically on a hill with a beautiful sightline,” explains assistant treasurer Janice Stetz, or, in the older section, perhaps near the peaceful central lake. “It’s going to be the views that make it more expensive.”

At this point, I was beginning to think I’d been priced out of the market for buying a grave just as I was for buying a condo. But one of the advantages of dying is that anyone has the option of something akin to subsidized housing: municipal cemeteries. At Fairview, in Hyde Park, a double-depth grave comes in at just under $4,000 (and that price is all-inclusive, whereas many cemeteries charge a separate fee to open the grave). It’s not exactly cheap, but there are rent-control protections for the dead that the living would truly envy: Boston’s public cemeteries are limited to a 5 percent increase per year and haven’t gone up at all in three years.

Ultimately, this tour of the real estate market landed me in the same place as every other: the suburbs. The farther outside the city you get, the less you have to spend, even at historical spots such as Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Concord. Prices in the new section have been flat at $1,200 a grave for almost two decades, cemetery supervisor Tish Hopkins said when we spoke on the phone. The premium offering at Sleepy Hollow, the occasional grave that opens in the more-desirable old section, sells for a higher rate of $2,200. But for many people, that’s a small surplus to pay for the quality of the neighbors, who include Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

At most of the state’s public cemeteries (including Sleepy Hollow), operation costs factor into town budgets, which means prices have risen relatively slowly. According to a semi-regular survey that Hopkins conducts of surrounding cemeteries, the average cost of a casket burial plot in the westerly suburbs rose from about $600 in 2003 to roughly $1,100 in 2017. In Chelmsford I could get burial rights with a flat marker for $775 (as compared with $650 for residents). It’s the eternal quandary: My friends might not visit me all the way out there, but at least I’d pay less and have plenty of room.

For George Milley, CEO of Forest Hills Cemetery, the future is all about urns. / Photo by Webb Chappell

If I’m still hell-bent on staying in the city when the time comes, my best option will likely be cremation. Nationwide, the average funeral with full-body burial will run your surviving family $7,000 or more, but you should be able to be cremated in the Boston area for around $1,400, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, stats show, nearly half of all people who die in Massachusetts choose cremation. It’s also increasingly a way for space-starved cemeteries such as Mount Auburn to keep their wrought-iron gates open.

In the early 1990s, Mount Auburn erected a few shared monuments over square-foot grids for carbonized remains—the luxury, shoebox-size apartments of the cemetery—in underground high-rises. At first, Barnett says, staffers were skeptical that people would pay for the end-of-life equivalent of a condo, where they’d have to share headstone space with strangers. “It turns out people want to be here more than they’re worried about that,” he says. Location, location, location.

The newest project for cremated remains is on a nearly vertical slope flanking Washington Tower that until recently has been dead space: acreage unusable for burying bodies. Over the past two years, the cemetery has spent $3 million to turn this incline into premium new digs. They ripped out the hill’s covering of overgrown forsythia in favor of an asymmetrical arrangement of new plants and boulders, to be engraved with the names of those who lie beneath. Though Barnett has yet to price these, cremation space in the historical core costs up to $75,000 per plot, and he tells me these spaces will be “prime,” with their view of Cambridge, Boston, and beyond.

The Boston area has some relatively affordable places for cremation interment—even at Mount Auburn, where the least expensive spot for an urn costs $2,700 —though they may be less so by the time I anticipate needing them. “The cemeteries’ costs of doing business are ever-increasing, and with fewer people having traditional burials and opting for cremation, their revenues are decreasing,” says funeral director Christopher Goulet, president of the Hamel-Lydon Chapel & Cremation Service of Massachusetts, in Quincy. “The net result is that people who are going to use those cemeteries in the future are going to pay more.” As more people decide on cremation—within 15 years, it’s expected that three-quarters of Bay Staters will choose disposition by fire—cemeteries will need to build a business model from the ashes, turning urn storage into a bigger share of their earnings.

Once again, the urban center will be the heart of the problem—a trend Goulet is already seeing. “If it’s really a cost issue, I’ll recommend people to a cemetery in Randolph,” he says. One client recently looked into buying a niche at Forest Hills, he says, where such spaces begin at $1,950 and can cost up to $8,500. At Saint Mary Cemetery in Randolph, 12 miles south of Jamaica Plain, niches for two urns start at $1,300, and lots for cremation burial start at $350. Goulet recalls, “To the family, looking at the numbers, it was a no-brainer.”

To avoid burial fees altogether, I could always tell my loved ones to scatter my ashes. It’s something many people do on the Massachusetts shoreline. Just ask George Milley, CEO of Forest Hills Cemetery. He likes to unwind from work with a walk on the beach, but lately he’s been encountering something that jolts him back to his job: soggy, grayish lumps. The average person might not recognize these for what they are, but to Milley it’s obvious, and upsetting, that he’s stumbling across cremated remains. “Someone thought they would neatly scatter these over the rocks, only to have the wind blow them back,” he laments, adding that most people don’t realize the average human body burns down to about 5 pounds of material: “You’re not just sprinkling a few ashes over the edge.”

Milley may be biased, but he is a staunch believer in the eternal product that cemeteries provide. After all, he says, you could scatter your family member’s ashes in a favorite forest that 10 years later ends up becoming condos, and the other options aren’t much better. “If you take them home and leave them on a shelf, in a generation, someone’s going to have a disconnect,” Milley says—you’re moving, for example, and don’t know what to do with your husband’s great-aunt. “Somewhere along the way, the body gets disposed of disrespectfully.”

For Dave Barnett, CEO of Mount Auburn Cemetery, the future is all about urns. / Photo by Webb Chappell

There has to be a better way to go in Boston—and a group of Bay Staters say they have one. They argue that burial, instead of competing for the already overtaxed acreage in traditional cemeteries, can actually create more space for public use. This is the idea behind the natural burial movement, in which everything that goes into the ground is biodegradable: no embalming fluid, no concrete vault, just a shroud or pine box. (In the greenest version of the practice, the grave is unmarked.) In one vision, natural burial is a way to move beyond cemeteries. You inter your loved one in undeveloped land, and by decaying there, they both feed the soil and ward off the danger of urban sprawl.

In a sense, these green burials require more space than the ones that happen in cemeteries (for one thing, many people are hesitant to dig green graves in a side-by-side grid, since there’s no concrete vault to prevent the disturbance of neighboring remains)—but in another sense, they don’t. When a cemetery buys land, it develops it into another city for the dead. When a nature conservancy allows green burials, it remains a nature conservancy. “It requires people accepting that their loved ones might not be close by,” says Carlton Basmajian, a professor of urban planning at Iowa State University who has studied the nascent green burial movement—especially for those of us who reside in cities, where these swaths of open land simply don’t exist. “The notion is, if we do this, do we imbue a lot more of the land that’s around the country with some degree of sacredness that could maybe protect it? Can we imagine people, when they pass on, being used for something else, being tools for conserving land?”

Not surprisingly, the idea has gained most traction in the crunchy Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. A group called Green Burial Massachusetts is currently in talks with the Kestrel Land Trust of Amherst to secure land for a green cemetery and is also working with the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, in Athol. Member Candace Currie told me the group is also paying close attention to a project called Recompose, based in Washington State, which is pioneering a new system of “natural organic reduction,” accelerating the process by which bodies become soil. The project, which began in the Pioneer Valley when the founder started research for it at UMass Amherst, could provide one answer to the space crunch confronting Boston and everywhere else.

Human composting, however, may still be a long way off in Massachusetts, where we don’t even have a dedicated green cemetery yet. In the meantime, the dead here devour resources, as they do nationwide. As Christopher Coutts, a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University, has written, Americans fill the ground every year with “enough wood to frame over 2,300 single-family homes; sufficient steel to erect almost 15 Eiffel Towers; nearly four times as much concrete as was used to build the Pentagon; and a volume of embalming fluid that would overflow an Olympic swimming pool.” Cremation isn’t the clean alternative many believe: The average body releases more than 500 pounds of CO2 when burned, and also poisons the air with heavy-metal pollution, including mercury from a generation of dental fillings.

In light of these facts, the quest to establish an environmentally friendly cemetery feels urgent to many members of the green burial group—but the slow pace of progress concerns 87-year-old Cambridge resident Eva Moseley. “In terms of keeping the earth livable, there are things we can’t control as individuals,” she says when I ask why she’s determined to have a natural burial. Choosing where and how to be buried may be the last good deed we can do. As a child, Moseley was a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria, and she mused that her democratic-socialist upbringing, as well as an interest in Hinduism and Buddhism that she nurtured in college, may have predisposed her to be interested in green burial. “I have this sense that I long for a kind of equilibrium, what’s called sustainability now. The earth has been feeding us,” she says, and she’s drawn to the idea of feeding the earth in return.

Moseley is still searching for green cemetery space, and her research has taken as many twists and turns as mine. Mount Auburn, down the street from her home, prices natural graves at $9,000 and up for ones that are unmarked and $15,000 for space with a shared marker, which struck her as “a terrible waste.” She tried the Cambridge municipal cemetery, which would allow her to forgo a liner, but they won’t sell plots pre-need, and the graveyard is too close to capacity to count on. “I’ve told my offspring that it’s not really where I want to go—I’d like to be in a place that’s all-natural—but it is one possibility,” she says. For a while, she’d been considering purchasing space at Cedar Brook Burial Ground, a green cemetery roughly 30 miles outside Portland, Maine, but felt it was “not convenient” if her far-flung family ever wanted to pay their respects.

Most recently, Moseley says, she’s been considering a town outside Boston—she declined to say which one because she’s still in talks with the local authorities—where she used to go hiking before long walks became difficult, and where the public cemetery is considering setting aside a green section at the behest of a group of citizens. The town doesn’t usually bury nonresidents, but she’s hoping to make a good case. “I love the place,” she says. “And the presumed cemetery is just gorgeous. It’s the quintessential New England landscape—stone walls, huge trees, a big, empty field. Very quiet. My kids live far away, but if they wanted to visit after the initial event, it would be a nice place.”

After I got off the phone with Moseley, I thought about my own years of hiking in the Pioneer Valley, where I grew up. On a recent trip out there, my husband, my brother, and I threw some beers into a backpack to drink on a summit only miles from the area’s proposed green cemetery site. The day was bright, and the beer was warm and frothy by the time we opened it, and my dog lay contentedly eating sticks by our feet. As the sun started to set, we got chilly and hungry, so we packed up our empties and started down. In life, I often fantasize about skipping out on the city and skipping over the suburbs, returning to the rural places I knew as a kid. In death, I may make a similar decision, forgoing the concrete jungle of a traditional cemetery in Boston for a pastoral place where, when I die, I can for once treat the earth according to the hiker’s ethos I learned long ago: To whatever extent possible, leave no trace.