There is a burial plot in St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York, where a one-year-old boy who succumbed to disease was buried 61 years ago. Now nothing is left but a patch of grass and the soil under it. The headstone has been removed and both the casket and the remains within it have disintegrated.
The deceased boy’s 61-year-old brother, who asks not to be named, tells me he is now looking to sell the three-person burial plot—the other two spaces originally intended for him and his mother—for financial reasons. The brother says that New York’s unforgiving economy, along with his own well-intended but poorly-timed business decisions, left his family in need of more money.
It starts off like any classic New York real estate story. There are rising land costs, limited space, and fading opportunities to buy, hold, and sell at a profit. There are independent sellers, professional and amateur brokers, and major institutions behind it all.
In the case of burial plots, the sellers are families and individuals reconsidering what to do with their bodies after death, the brokers are mysterious men running ads on Craigslist and other sites, and the institutions are St. John’s, Green-Wood, Woodlawn and Pinelawn, along with other graveyards in and around New York City. A spokeswoman for St. John’s, a 243-acre Roman Catholic graveyard, tells me the cemetery allows individuals to transfer deeds to a burial space in situations where the individuals have complete ownership, but does not view the transactions as sales—even if they are.
“I live in Florida and will not use them,” one ad reads.