My family recently found itself in the position of needing to sell some burial plots and I learned so much going through the exercise of trying to sell them that I thought I should share my experience. The following is my first-person account, and experiences may vary depending on local circumstances.
I grew up in North Carolina. My parents, like many families at the time, bought a plot of 6 grave sites at a local cemetery there in the early 1960s. My father is buried there and after she dies, my mother will be buried there too. But no one else in the family lives in that town any more or wants to be buried there. So, in 2015 we decided to try to sell or donate the extra 4 plots. It turns out that, with the current trend toward cremation, and the tendency for family members to relocate, there are many people looking to do the same thing now. This makes it challenging to sell or even donate them.
We found that the cemetery where the lots are located is not willing to buy them back or offer them to potential buyers at any price. There are some cemeteries that do, so it’s worth asking, but most apparently do not. If the cemetery is willing to buy them back, it may be for only what was paid for them initially. In any case, expect a transfer fee to be imposed by the cemetery when the plots are sold. In our case, the fee was $295. This is because the cemetery has to formalize the transfer and issue a new deed. This cemetery informed me, however, that it would probably waive that fee if the purchaser of our plots also bought goods or services from them at the same time, such as a vault or monument, or opening or closing a grave; or prepaid for any of these goods or services at the time of transfer.
I’d looked at a few online listings for grave sites in the cemetery where our plots are located over the years to educate myself and found what appeared to be little movement there – it appears to me that there are some burial plots that have been listed for years on the sites I looked at without being sold. It occurred to me that since there are such a large number of national online sites for reselling cemetery plots, there might be little traffic on any one of them, and of course, they charge fees. It seemed to me that it would be preferable to deal more directly with potential buyers who would probably want to be able to handle things quickly at a time of need than to involve an online middleman. I have no information about how useful the online sites are for selling cemetery plots, but it seems to me that if I were in the market for cemetery plots, particularly at a time of need, I would prefer not to have to burden myself with trying to vet online marketers.
My next thought was to donate the plots. But I was surprised to find that was not easy to do. I called my mother’s church, which belongs to a prominent Protestant denomination. No one there had any experience with accepting such a donation but it was clear that if I donated to this church, the plots would be sold as quickly as possible for whatever cash they could generate. Since I knew it is not easy to resell them, I reasoned this would likely mean they would be sold very cheaply and therefore the allowable tax deduction would be quite small. I’m not a tax expert but it is my understanding that if property, including a cemetery plot (although a cemetery plot is not actually real property – more about that later) is donated to a charity and the charity sells it, the donor can only take a tax deduction for the actual selling price. But if the charity uses it for part of its mission, the fair market resale value, which is not the current retail value but is a reasonable estimate of what it might be resold for under ordinary circumstances, can be taken. So I undertook looking into another charity that might be able to use the plots as part of its mission. I called the local nonprofit hospice, thinking it might use them to give to families who needed a burial plot but could not afford to buy one. But I was surprised to find that the hospice was already awash in more than 250 cemetery lots that had been donated to it, and had found that it could not give them away. This is because families who could not afford a burial plot could also not afford the opening and closing fees and the other costs associated with in-ground burial. So the hospice was actively trying to find a way to dispose of the plots it already had, and felt burdened by the need to keep track of them in the meantime.
I called the largest nonprofit hospice in Montgomery County, MD, in researching this article and found that it was not willing to accept cemetery plots in donation either.
It occurred to me that the best way to connect with families at a time of need was to ask funeral establishments if they would be willing to let families who don’t already have plots, about the ones we wanted to sell. I spoke to three establishments, including one owned by SCI, a national chain of funeral establishments and cemeteries which also happens to own the cemetery our plots are in. The funeral establishment owned by SCI was not willing to do this for us, but the other two were. They told me that they routinely keep a folder of such offerings to show to families who might be interested, and if they are, they simply tell the potential seller and buyer how to get in touch with each other without becoming involved in the transaction directly. This situation does not happen often, they told me, but it occasionally does. So I got a statement from the cemetery listing the exact plots and their location, along with a copy of the deed, and left that information with the two funeral establishments.
We offered them for about one third of what the cemetery would charge for plots of the same kind and location. Even though we could not hope to sell them for their full “retail” value, the discounted price is significantly more than what they were purchased for in 1960. And since cemetery plots are not considered actual real estate – when you purchase a cemetery plot, you are not actually buying the land, only the right to be buried there – there is no taxable capital gain incurred on the sale. So selling them at a heavily discounted price is still worthwhile if they have been held for many years.
I also found that the local Greek Orthodox church, many of whose members have bought gravesites together very close to our plots, was willing to post a notice to its members about our plots and to accept them in donation in case we are not able to sell them. I was told that this church does at times make available a plot to a needy family and when necessary, help to defray the other costs involved in a simple burial for one of its own flock. After some time passed, this church decided to offer us a further discounted price for all 4 of the plots, which we accepted.
One piece of advice I would give to anyone thinking of buying cemetery plots on the resale market is to make sure you are dealing with an honest person with clear title to the plots. There should be a formal transfer with issuance of a new deed, which will involve the cemetery itself even though the cemetery is not the buyer or seller, even if it does not act as an agent or broker itself. No money should change hands until this is all arranged through the cemetery. That is what the transfer fee is for.