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'Perpetual' cemetery care? It's not eternal

Posted: 3:32 PM, Jun 01, 2016
Updated: 2016-06-01 19:10:10-04

Thinking of paying for "perpetual care" for a loved one who recently passed away? You may first want to hear from a  woman who is distressed over the condition of her mom's grave site, which she says is in disrepair, with grass and weeds growing tall all around it.

She says the family paid for care for all eternity, or so she thought. But what she learned is a lesson for all of us with aging parents.

Overgrown on Memorial Day

Generations of Debbie Stehlin's family members, including military veterans, are buried on a peaceful hillside, at Cincinnati's Vine Street Hill Cemetery in Avondale.

But Stehlin was heartbroken when she recently found the grass over a foot tall.

"It was pretty upsetting because it was Memorial Day weekend," she said.

What really troubled her, though was that her family paid for perpetual care of their graves.

"That's why my Mom got it," she explained, "because it would take care of her graves for the rest of eternity."

Perpetual vs Eternal

It turns out this is common at many older cemeteries, where parents and grandparents signed up for perpetual care 50 years ago or longer.

It turns out decades later that perpetual is not the same as eternal.

Cemetery general manager Terese Marshall said "our perpetual care, back in the day, was $68 a year. You can't really hire anyone to do that at that price," she said.

Marshall explains perpetual care was priced so low in the 1960's and 70's it would be impossible to give individual grave care at that price anymore.

She says the cemetery is maintained, but says days of heavy rain this past Spring, and 200 hilly acres, have made this year a challenge. "There are several hills here that we can only get in and trim properly by hand with weed wackers," she said.

The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Directors Association says many cemeteries are no longer able to afford the perpetual care they promised families years ago.

It also explains that when a family pays for perpetual care,  it typically goes into a fund that then pays for general cemetery upkeep, not just for the upkeep of a specific grave. Otherwise, one grave would be beautifully maintained, while the others (without care) grow over.

Perpetual care is now regulated individually by states. But most states now require families to sign a contract and pay a monthly fee if they want that grave site well maintained for perpetuity.

But it doesn't necessarily mean your grave will be attended eternally, as in the Eternal Flame at the grave of President John F Kennedy.

Debbie Stehlin just wants to see her mom's resting place kept up. "My grandma always told me she paid for perpetual care and that would take care of the grave," she said.

And foot-tall grass is not the care her mother envisioned.  As always don't waste your money.

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EXPLANATION FROM INTERNATIONAL CEMETERY, CREMATION, AND FUNERAL DIRECTOR'S ASSOCIATION:

The term "perpetual care" in cemeteries has come to mean the providing of funds, to be held in perpetual trust, the income of which is to be expended in keeping up forever the necessary care of the individual lots and graves, and the maintenance, repair and future renewal of the borders, drives, water and sewer systems, enclosures and necessary buildings. In some cases, two separate funds are provided, the income from one of which is devoted exclusively to the care of the private lots and graves and the other to the care, maintenance and renewal of the balance of the cemetery. In other cases, the funds are still further subdivided, while the more recent tendency seems to be to establish one fund and apportion the income from year to year as needed to these various purposes. The best of the argument seems to be in favor of the one fund, because every lot owner is almost as vitally interested in the upkeep of the cemetery as a whole, as he is of that of his own lot.

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Don't Waste Your Money is a registered trademark of the EW Scripps Co.

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