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In NY, price of land for the dead can rise to US$1m

Lack of space is becoming a grave problem, so plots are getting pricier, smaller, even stacking coffins three-deep

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At Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, newer plots are just 30 inches wide by 7 feet long (76 cm by 2.1 m), the equivalent of studio apartments for the deceased. At many cemeteries, plots accommodate two stacked caskets.

New York

IF THE ever-soaring price of condos in New York City has your head spinning, wait until you shop for a cemetery plot.

Prices for the last piece of real estate that any New Yorker will ever own - a cemetery plot or an aboveground crypt - have also climbed significantly over the years.

Basic cemetery plots across the five boroughs now generally cost US$4,500 to US$19,000, not including hefty fees for foundations, burials and maintenance.

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The best deals can be found on Staten Island, where a grave site can be had for less than US$3,000, but an increasingly rare final resting place in Manhattan can go for US$1 million.

But wherever you go, you won't actually own the land. When you buy a burial spot, you are just acquiring the right to use the space in perpetuity - not unlike the shares you get when you buy in a co-op building and live in an apartment that you don't technically own.

While cemetery directors long ago warned that the city would soon run out of burial space, they, like their counterparts in other types of real estate development, have found ingenious ways to carve out new space in already crowded environments.

In fact, there may be enough cemetery plots left in the city to last for several more decades, even in historic sites like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

The growing popularity of cremation has helped ease the demand.

While consumers have turned to cremation for many reasons, an urn with cremated remains - or cremains, as the funeral industry calls them - takes up far less space than a coffin. An in-ground plot for cremains at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn is only 2 square feet and starts at US$1,200.

Space, of course, was less of an issue 150 years ago. When Tammany Hall politician Boss Tweed died in 1878: he and his family had already bought two large plots at Green-Wood that were combined to accommodate one and all.

His final abode is 600 square feet and enclosed by a low granite wall with a bronze gate. His monument stands at the centre, surrounded by other monuments and headstones for his father, his wife and children, and assorted relatives - with plenty of room to spare.

Today, thanks in part to a taste for mobility that often flings us far from our places of birth, a more typical cemetery purchase might be a single plot, chosen and bought by survivors during the grief-racked days after the unexpected death of a loved one.

Perhaps not surprising in a city as dense as New York, the deceased are often not alone in their "single" plots.

At many cemeteries, plots accommodate two stacked caskets (a "double-depth" grave, in funeral parlance).

At others, a single grave can hold three - perhaps the logical last port of call for a family of three who made do with a one-bedroom apartment.

Plot sizes vary from cemetery to cemetery, and even within cemeteries, but over the years they have been shrinking.

At the 156-year-old Woodlawn, a landmark on 400 rolling acres (162 hectares), some older plots are 4 feet wide by 10 feet long (1.2 metres by 3 metres); in a new section being laid out, the plots are 40 inches wide by 8 feet 6 inches long.

At Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, the plots are just 30 inches wide by 7 feet long. Welcome to the studio apartment for the deceased.

Sometimes there are unused plots in older sections, and cemeteries can reclaim grave sites that were sold long ago but never occupied. From time to time, people who own plots change their minds about where they want to spend eternity and seek to sell them back.

Just as New Yorkers with small apartments have been forced to turn dining rooms into bedrooms and closets into home offices, cemeteries, too, have gotten creative.

They have ripped up roadways and paths to make room for more grave sites. They are building mausoleums for aboveground burials - more stacking of caskets, but unlike apartment buildings, where the most desirable units tend to be at the top, in mausoleums the eye-level offerings are the most coveted and expensive, with prices declining as you go higher or lower.

Back in 2010, Green-Wood officials believed the cemetery would have to stop selling plots in about five years.

Now Eric Barna, vice-president of operations, thinks the cemetery might still be burying people for decades. "The end might be 25 years away or 50 years away," he said.

To accommodate the shift toward cremation, many cemeteries are building columbaria, aboveground structures with niches that can hold hundreds or even thousands of urns.

Niches with glass fronts have become popular, allowing survivors to display not only an urn but also photos and other mementos.

Flushing Cemetery, in Queens, the 75-acre expanse where Louis Armstrong is buried, is down to its "last acre" of space for burials, said John Helly, the general manager. But the cemetery just built its first mausoleum, which opens this spring.

The structure will contain 168 crypts and 3,400 niches, and take up the same amount of space that might otherwise have been devoted to a few hundred graves. Because many of the niches are "companion niches", with room for two urns, the mausoleum will be able to hold about 5,000 urns. "It will extend the life of the cemetery," Mr Helly said.

The one place where it is nearly impossible to be buried? Manhattan. Trinity Church's cemetery in Hamilton Heights, which sprawls on either side of Broadway and bills itself as "the only active cemetery and mausoleum" in the borough, no longer accommodates in-ground burials.

Mayor Edward Koch was buried there in 2013, for what was then an eyebrow-raising price of US$20,000. Today, above-ground crypts at Trinity can run as high as US$60,000 for a single coffin, while niches for a single urn range from US$1,900 to US$6,500.

Those with considerably more to spend might consider a crypt at New York Marble Cemetery, one of many burial grounds that once dotted the East Village.

There are no headstones in this hidden spot, reached through iron gates on Second Avenue.

Weathered names of the original crypt owners, many of them Dutch and English entrepreneurs who arrived after the American Revolution, are carved on marble tablets on the walls around the lawn. Tucked underground are 156 80-square-foot crypts made of Tuckahoe marble, with slate doors on iron hinges.

"Picture a wine cellar with a vaulted ceiling," said Caroline DuBois, the cemetery's volunteer president, whose own family crypt has had 19 burials since 1831.

Through a painstaking and lengthy process, the cemetery has reclaimed two empty crypts and is offering them for sale, at US$350,000 each. "Maybe," she speculated, one of them will go to "a hedge-fund manager who's bought all the diamonds and yachts he needs" and wants a permanent place of residence among New York's earlier go-getters.

But New York Marble's crypts are not the priciest Manhattan digs for the deceased.

Wealthy Roman Catholics could choose to spend eternity at the Basilica of St Patrick's Old Cathedral, on Mulberry Street, the precursor to St Patrick's Cathedral in Midtown. The cost: A cool US$1 million a person. NYTIMES