Friday, October 11, 2013

Philadelphia Archdiocese Offloads Cemeteries

Initially when I heard about this in August of 2013, I thought the Church was selling its cemeteries! What the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is actually doing is selling off six its nursing homes and outsourcing the management of thirteen of its cemeteries. To be more specific, it is leasing the cemeteries listed below to an outside for-profit corporation called “StoneMor.” According an October 9, 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article entitled Grave Concerns(see link at end), StoneMor Partners, L.P., is one of the largest operators of cemeteries and funeral homes in the U.S. The company operates 277 cemeteries and 92 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico (ref.).

Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
Soon to be Outsourced Philadelphia Cemeteries:

All Souls Cemetery, Coatesville (Chester County)
·         Calvary Cemetery, West Conshohocken (Montgomery County)
·         Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon (Delaware County)
·         Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia
·         Immaculate Heart of Mary Cemetery, Linwood (Delaware County)
·         Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem (Bucks County)
·         Saint John Neumann Cemetery, Chalfont (Bucks County)
·         Saint Michael Cemetery, Chester (Delaware County)
·         Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery, Springfield (Delaware County)

(Above list from

"Additionally, All Saints Cemetery, Newtown (Bucks County) and Holy Savior Cemetery, Penn Township (Bucks County) are not currently active cemeteries, but sites designated for future use. They would also be affected." (ref.

Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Philadelphia
So what does this mean to people who have pre-purchased plots? Or to families whose loved ones already reside in these cemeteries? Will they now let just anyone in (the Catholic Church has always given mobsters a hard time)? Will the upkeep of the grounds change? Will prices go up? And I know you’re wondering (well, I am, at least) what this means to the cemetery photographer…. 

My experience photographing in these Catholic cemeteries has been very positive over the past fifteen years and I hope that doesn’t change. Photography is allowed in most of them, though the last time I was in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (Cheltenham Avenue, Philadelphia), I was told that photography was no longer allowed. One thing this brought to mind was an experience I had at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Orange, New Jersey, some years ago. I was stopped as I was photographing and told that the Archdiocese (of Newark, NJ) no longer allowed photography in its cemeteries.

All of the Philadelphia cemeteries on the above list are meticulously maintained and secured, so there is very little damage from vandalism. They are just beautiful places and I hope they remain so. One of the cemeteries on the list, Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, has special meaning for me – it was the catalyst for my interest in cemetery photography. Back in the late 1990s, whenever I would drive by it, I would think, “I should really be photographing those angel statues in there…

Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania

Why is the Catholic Church leasing these cemeteries? To garner much-needed income. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is running at an enormous financial deficit and the current administration sees the sale and lease of some of its major assets as the answer ("the Archdiocese lost $39.2 million for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012, while hundreds of millions still haunts its future balance sheets” according to

The thirteen-cemetery lease in Philadelphia will net the Archdiocese a few dollars - $89 million, to be exact, over the course of the 60-year lease! And if that seems an astronomical number, realize that StoneMor would not have entered into the deal without the expectation of reasonable profit. And I doubt they’d be happy with a 2% supermarket margin. The company is planning to expand sales dramatically, hiring 75 to 100 salespeople. The Archdiocese currently has only THREE, and does not sell many plots in advance (ref). Such "pre-need" sales are expected to increase once StoneMor takes over.
Nuns' headstones, New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia

StoneMor it trying to reassure the public (in an article published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sept. 29, 2013) that the properties “will retain their Catholic character” and that prices will not go up “unless they’re due for their annual price increase.” This increase is typically $50 per year for opening and closing a six-foot grave, and is currently $1550.

References and Further Reading:

Philadelphia Inquirer  article “Grave Concerns