“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure, with mathematical exactness, the tender mercy of its people, their respect for the law of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
— Sir William Ewart Gladstone
That quote, or some derivation of it, is a guiding principle among those who work in businesses tied to the end of life, such as funeral homes and cemeteries. Caring for the dead and treating their remains with respect is a high calling. It’s something that should matter to the entire community, not just the death industry.
This topic hits home as Linwood Cemetery, one of the biggest of Dubuque’s final resting places, enters into state receivership.
With falling revenue, Linwood Cemetery’s board of directors entered into voluntary receivership, granting the state permission of ownership. As of last week, Linwood is officially in the hands of the Iowa Insurance Division, the agency that oversees the process.
The demise didn’t happen overnight. Like so many others, the death industry is experiencing radical change. Where once nearly everyone was buried after death, cremations have risen steadily.
In the past decade, the number of burials at Linwood has been halved, and the number of cremations continues to rise. While a traditional burial costs about $900, a cremation is about half the price. That trend has dramatically reduced the cemetery’s income and chipped away at its reserves over the years.
The scenario at Linwood isn’t unique. Industry trends are impacting cemeteries across the country. Cemeteries in Clinton, Davenport and Fort Dodge, Iowa, have all come under state ownership in the past couple of years. After attempting to straighten out the finances, the state looks to cede ownership back to the community in which the cemetery lies. In the case of Linwood, that would be the City of Dubuque.
While city officials likely wouldn’t relish having to take on ownership of a 130-acre cemetery, therein could lie a solution to the financial difficulty. Cities are empowered to tax citizens for the care of cemeteries.
Moving that direction might not be palatable, but it’s a reminder that this problem isn’t going away, and it’s an issue for which the entire community bears responsibility. The state might be able to identify financial restructuring that could help Linwood be more sustainable. Receivership isn’t in itself a solution, but rather a beginning of the process.
As cemeteries face an uncertain future, community members and stakeholders must work together to seek solutions. The trend is unlikely to change on its own. As an enlightened society that cares for its dead, as Sir William put it, we should be part of the solution.