When the Cemetery Fills Up, Sell Tickets

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photograph by Seth Wenig/AP Photo

A 756 square-foot mausoleum site in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., will set you back $320,000, enough to buy a big boat or a (very) small apartment nearby. The high price of an indoor burial space–one bigger than some New York homes—is perhaps the most rarefied of rich-people problems, but it’s indicative of a broader trend: New York’s cemeteries are filling up. Green-Wood will hit full capacity in five years, and that’s driving up the price of real estate in the hereafter for rich and poor alike.

As my Bloomberg News colleague Flavia Krause-Jackson reported, the global funeral industry is adjusting. That includes catering to an increasing preference for cremation and building burial sites offshore and in mid-air. Green-Wood’s strategy is a little different: It’s selling tickets.

The cemetery, built in 1838, is the final resting place to Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a half-million others. It has been trying to attract history lovers since at least 2002. In recent years, the nonprofit cemetery has taken to selling memberships and charging admissions fees for outdoor yoga classes and trolley tours. An upcoming tour built around the grave of a 19th century whiskey distiller, which costs non-members $30, has already sold out.

Green-Wood isn’t the only New York cemetery to pitch itself as an historical destination. Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx has offered foodie-inspired tours, which includes a stop at the grave of the pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas. Cypress Hills Cemetery, on the Brooklyn-Queens border, is the site of an annual road race called the “5K Run Through History.” Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens hosts concerts and poetry readings.

Elsewhere, graveyards have sought to use mobile technology to make themselves more accessible to visitors. Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, built a smartphone app to help visitors navigate the graves of U.S. military veterans. An crowdsourced genealogy project called BillionGraves is seeking to catalog headstones around the world and charges $9.99 for premium memberships.

Programs to make cemeteries more tourist-friendly sound vanilla, compared to other solutions for the lack of burial space, such as a floating cemetery off the coast of Hong Kong, or a Houston company that will launch your pet’s ashes into space for $995.

New Yorkers who don’t want to go to similarly extravagant lengths can partake in a time-honored tradition among city dwellers who seek lower real estate costs and more space: They can look for a cheaper plot in the suburbs.