Swapping Cemetery Lots
Consumers with firm resolve can sometimes prevail. Here's how one woman managed to get her mother's grave lots swapped from one corporation cemetery to one in another town. --- FCA
Here is my letter which got such excellent results. I copied the company on it and told them, in very nice words, that I intended to send it to my mom's Senators, my Senators (in another state), AARP, and the Gray Panthers, asking for appropriate legislative action and lobbying. I also said I'd be sending it to the Dept. of Consumer Affairs, and several newspapers so that they could do appropriate news coverage and warn consumers. Then I said that I first wanted to give them the opportunity to reconsider their decision before I sent the letters, and therefore they had until 5 PM that day to agree to swap the plots. They called me at 5:04 PM with their offer to do so. When they called, they said the reason they were swapping them was because my mom had been told by their salesman that the plots were swappable within the company's family of cemeteries. Of course, I believe it's because they would have spent way more than the $5,000 it cost them to swap, had they had to answer inquiries by Senators and newspapers—not to mention the subsequent negative publicity they'd incur. If you post this, please omit any mention of the particular cities, my mom's name, or the name of the cemeteries and firm. Please point out to people that if they want to do something similar, it helps if they have a firm case; they also need to spell out exactly what it is they want from the firm, i.e. "I want a direct swap." For best results, they should be very, very nice but also very firm, and should set a time limit so the issue doesn't go on and on without resolution. The letter should not be perceived by the recipient as "threatening," but merely state one's case and why they think they've been unfairly treated. Folks have more power to create trouble for the cemetery than people normally think.
Regardless, the best way to guard against such injustices is to be aware of deceptive practices and negotiate hard before signing the contract, when the cemetery will be willing to deal in order to close the sale. After signing, you lose all further negotiation power. Do price comparisons before signing; don't fall for "the price expires on such-and-such-a-date" line; and most importantly have an attorney review the contract before you sign it. This will be money very well-spent: in reviewing my mom's contract, I noticed some pretty slippery terms in the fine print! Had they not been there, she would have had much better legal footing with which to force the cemetery's compliance. The average person who has no legal background just doesn't realize what they're agreeing to—the clause can look very innocuous but turn out to be highly onerous. Lastly, remind your constituency that regardless of how the contract reads, there may be subsequent legislation which supersedes the terms of the contract.
Thanks a bunch for your website. I learned a lot from it, which is what first motivated me to fight back in my mom's defense. Please note that I didn't promise to NEVER send such a letter! I will probably still lobby for reform, but without naming any individual firm—and I think I'll wait til my mom's deal closes.
Thirty years ago, my parents purchased two cemetery plots at XXX Cemetery, for a price of $468 total. They subsequently moved to another town some distance away. My father died there and was buried in YYY Memorial Park. Both cemeteries are owned by the same corporation. Plots of the type my mother owns are currently priced the same at both cemeteries, about $2,495.
My mother of course wishes to be buried with my father. She therefore inquired as to the ability to transfer the plots. She was told that she could apply the full purchase price of her original plots to the purchase price of the new ones. In other words, they will give her $468 for plots now worth $5,000, and charge her full price for the new ones! They told her if she didn't like this deal, she could sell the plots herself. This is a very difficult proposition for an elderly person. In fact, it has proved impossible since she doesn't live in first city anymore and the cemetery refuses to provide her any assistance, not even brokering the graves for a fee. She has spent hundreds of dollars advertising the plots yet received only one call.
The cemetery's policy seems a completely unfair practice. My mother is elderly and is simply being taken advantage of. The plots are real estate which has appreciated, and the cemetery policies are, simply put, designed to cheat her and others in similar circumstances. All of the advantage is completely one-sided: the cemetery winds up making a bundle on both sides of the transaction, and my mom winds up with her choice of "out a lot of money" or "owner of a worthless asset". The cemetery gets to sell the plot twice, at full value of 30 years ago and then again at the full appreciated value of 1998.
They know that they have my mom over a barrel, since she wants to be buried near my father, and they are therefore taking complete advantage of her and playing her emotions. And, since XXX Cemetery controls the prices for access and service at their cemetery, other solutions such as moving my father or doubling the grave depth are cost-prohibitive (the cost for this would about equal the cost of buying the second plot).
I have inquired of this through ICFA (a cemetery and funerary association); their reply is appended at bottom. I have also provided, as background and as further evidence of the deceptive practices of this corporation, a note from my mother in which she explained to me the things that were told her by the two cemeteries. I have reviewed the contract she signed in 1969 and it simply says that sale or transfer shall be subject to the cemetery's then rules or any they may adopt in future—giving them free rein to make unilateral changes, which strikes me as an unfair, unconscionable contract term. I understand that there is nothing obligating them to do the "land swap". I don't even mind them charging a fee for this service—say $500. I just think their current practice is so completely unfair as to be predatory, and it especially impacts elderly people. I would very much appreciate it if you would have your office investigate this practice and take appropriate action.
[Note from the mother to her daughter] Re: the cemeteries
When Dad died & I called YYY Memorial Park, they told me the lots were only transferable for what we originally paid for them, which I think was approx. $407 (or whatever is in the papers). When I talked to the man at XXX Cemetery, he said, "See, if YYY belonged to this company, there would be no problem—it would be swappable. I could swap but then I'd only have the $400+ applied @ YYY & owe the rest. When I last talked to XXX, they told me that plots were now worth $3,000 but I could only transfer what I originally paid for them. I suppose that is the way they are making their money. XXX salesman told me he didn't know anything about YYY, the nerve!
[Response from ICFA:]
Your email to Mr. Budzinski of our staff has been forwarded to me for a response. Cemeteries do not typically repurchase cemetery lots and many states have laws prohibiting the sale or resale of burial lots for purpose of financial gain. However, I believe that in your state, you can retain a cemetery sales broker (possibly a real estate agent) to sell unwanted cemetery property. If you would like to discuss this issue, please feel free to call me at 1-800-645-7700. I hope this information is useful. Robert M. Fells General Counsel, ICFA