Municipal cemeteries could fill up fast, leaving many scrambling for other affordable options

There's another group of people who could be affected by the slow economy: the dead.

Municipal cemeteries traditionally have provided low-income families with an affordable choice over private cemeteries or mausoleums. But as those fill up, and cities show no signs of expanding their cemeteries in tough budget times, where will survivors go for affordable burials?

While some public cemeteries in Broward and Palm Beach Counties have enough plots left to continue burials for many years, time is running out for others.

Boynton Beach, with 1,016 plots between Memorial Park Cemetery and Mausoleum and Sara Sims Memorial Cemetery, and Delray Beach, with less than 1,000 plots at Delray Beach Memorial Gardens, are approaching crisis. At current burial rates, for example, Boynton Beach coud run out of plots in three years, while Delray Beach's plots may last another five to seven years.

"Some cities may have to re-evaluate the land they have, possibly close off some roads or build mausoleums, which would be able to extend the life of a cemetery," said Doug Kinzer, a director with the Florida Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.

At $575 for a plot for residents and $935 for nonresidents, Delray Beach is among the most affordable cemeteries in the area. That compares to $2,000 to $7,000 to purchase a plot in some local private cemeteries.

"We do have people who come from all over the place because they shop around. They said we're the cheapest," said Assistant City Clerk Lanelda Gaskins. Boynton Beach charges $625 for adult plots, while Boca Raton charges $1,510. A typical plot at a private cemetery can cost $1,455 to $10,000, depending on location, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Brad Pfau, family service manager for Palm Beach Memorial Park, a private cemetery in Lantana, said he has seen an increase in the number of families who can't afford regularly priced plots or services.

"We try to meet [low-income families] in the middle. We don't want to lose sight of the type of business we're in," he said. "There has to be a certain amount of compassion. Everyone has the right to a dignified burial."

Palm Beach Memorial Park offers low-income families burials for one-third of the normal price, or about $1,500, for families who can prove they are low income or who have been referred by nonprofit organzations because of their financial situation.

Pfau said public cemeteries can't always afford to provide a free burial, and many are publicly held and don't always give discounts.

City-owned Delray Beach Memorial Gardens was established in 1901. It added 4,000 plots in 1994, yet it now will have to begin offering more crypts, since plots are running out, Park Superintendent Tim Simmons said.

"We do have room to go the route of a future mausoleum, which the city will probably do, but times are hard right now," Simmons said. At about 150 burials per year, "I would venture to say we're probably five to seven years from filling up."

Kinzer, who runs The Gardens, A Memorial Park and Cemetery, in Boca Raton, said this is a common problem municipal cemeteries face, as many were established decades ago and cities inevitably grew around them.

In some communities, the demand for cemetery space has prompted cities to build mausoleums in their cemeteries. Boca Raton has 25 buildings and about 5,000 crypts for sale. And Boca Raton, with 500 remaining plots but 5 acres of undeveloped land at Boca Raton Cemetery and Mausoleum, can operate for 80 to 100 years.

In Broward County, Pompano Beach escaped running out of space when it found an unmarked plot of land that turned out to be empty, giving the city another 3,000 plots that could last up to 50 years.

Fort Lauderdale has a stock of about 8,400 plots divided among its three cemeteries — Sunset Memorial Gardens, Lauderdale Memorial Park and Evergreen — averaging about 800 funerals a year.

But adding mausoleums doesn't provide the same affordable options in-ground burials do. One of the crypts at a mausoleum in Delray Beach could cost between $3,640 and $5,050, leaving many to consider cremation niches instead, which can run between $595 and $834.

Still, families caught unprepared or with very low means can still find more affordable options. Cremation is an affordable option, said Ed Libengood, Boca Raton's cemetery manager.

Libengood said Boca Raton will bury a resident of low means for nothing if the family can show proof of indigence.

Libengood said in recent years, as the economy has spiraled downward, many veterans have chosen to be buried at veterans' cemeteries such as South Florida National Cemetery west of Lake Worth, which is free for veterans and their dependent children.

"Many families have financially been forced into cremation," he said. "Cremation has created another option."