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Articles

"Crypt-Builder Finds a Growing Market, but Not Much Competition"

By Robert Mullins of the Business Journal Staff – April 2, 1994

Fourteen years ago, Ron Mork had a comfortable, secure job in the local construction industry but decided to give it up to start his own contracting firm. His specialty, he decided, would be building mausoleums. “I just thought that (building) mausoleums was a neat thing,” said Mork, 56, president of Mork Mausoleum Construction Inc., Waukesha. “It’s kind of unique and I thought that I could make some money at it.”

By being the only contractor in the Milwaukee area — and one of only a half-dozen in the country — that builds mausoleums exclusively, Mork Mausoleum obviously has cornered the market in southeast Wisconsin. “Quite frankly, we see Mork Construction doing most of our work,” said Gregg Apostoloff, director of marketing for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which operates eight cemeteries. “They have for over 10 years been the successful bidder ”

According to Mork, Mork Mausoleum has stayed successful by staying small, mastering the unique standards of mausoleum construction and serving a market few other contractors serve. When the company started in 1980, it employed four people: Mork, his sons, Jim and Dave, and a daughter’s boyfriend. Fourteen years later, Mork Mausoleum employs 11 people, but Ron Mork is cautious about adding more, even in an expanding market for mausoleum building. “If we have to, we’ll hire to grow, but we don’t want to get monstrously big,” said Jim Mork, 36, now a foreman with the company. “We want to have control over our work…because we take a lot of pride in what we do.”

A Surprising Lack of Competition

Taking pride in mausoleum work involves using high-quality materials and exacting building standards, Jim Mork said. The covers over the individual crypts with the names of the deceased inscribed on them — called “shutters” in the business — are made of granite if used for an outside crypt or marble if used for an inside crypt. The marble Mork Mausoleum uses is imported from Italy, Spain or Portugal, Mork said. The granite usually comes from domestic suppliers. The mausoleum walls are built using the “cast-in-place” method of pouring the concrete rather than by assembling pre-cast concrete slabs. According to Jim Mork, precast concrete panels can pose problems. In the settling process, the panels may shift and then the shutter won’t fit as well.

Keeping the company small helps maintain the quality control and reduces overhead, Ron Mork said. The firm keeps its overhead low, he said, by keeping operations in the family. Mork Mausoleum limits its use of subcontractors and handles all the cost estimating, bidding, and other administrative duties out of its small office. “Between my two sons, myself, and my daughter-in-law (Jim’s wife, Barbara, is vice president and secretary), we take care of everything,” Ron said. While taking care of everything has helped Mork Mausoleum dominate the market close to home, the company also has been competitive in other markets, building mausoleums from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Long Island, N.Y.

Although proud of his company’s achievements, Ron Mork is somewhat mystified that other contractors haven’t tried to take him on. “The biggest surprise was the lack of competition that we have,” he said. “When we go after a job, we basically get it.”

Increasing Inventory

Although more people still choose in-ground burial over entombment, the tide is shifting, Apostoloff said. Three-quarters of the Archdiocese’s sales are to people buying “in the advance-of-need stage,” he said. Of those, 75% of those are purchasing crypts rather than burial plots.

“It is a trend,” said Stephen Morgan, executive vice president of the American Cemetery Association, a Falls Church, Va., trade association for cemetery and mausoleum operators. “There are very few new cemeteries being built in the United States,” Morgan said. “In a business sense, you can say it’s not a highest and best use of a scarce resource, such as land.”

For cemetery owners for whom space is limited, mausoleum development gives them “increased burial inventory” without having to buy more real estate. That’s why mausoleum development is more prevalent in urban areas than it is in rural areas, said Dave Mork, 33. Mausoleum development also is growing, he claimed, because family members prefer the convenience of visiting the dearly departed at a mausoleum rather than at a grave site. Many mausoleums have chapels or other indoor facilities for shelter from the weather.

Mausoleums not only make the bereaved more comfortable, they extend the life of cemeteries, according to Felix McCauley, manager of the Catholic Cemetery Association of Racine Inc., which owns and operates four cemeteries in Racine, WI. “If you have, for example, 300 funerals a year, if a third of them go into the mausoleum, that means that you’re really saving some land,” McCauley said. One of the Racine sites, Calvary Cemetery, is the site of the first Catholic mausoleum built in Wisconsin, McCauley said. It was built in 1964 and has been expanded twice since. The mausoleum at Racine’s Holy Cross Cemetery was built in 1974 and added onto three more times, he said. Mork Mausoleum completed the most recent addition, a 500-crypt expansion, last year.

Note:  Dave Mork left the company in 1997 to pursue other interests. Ron Mork retired from the company in 2003, but is retained as a consultant.

"Mausoleums Getting a Makeover – cremation trends, personal tastes affect design"

By Thomas A. Parmalee of American Cemetery Magazine – May 2007

When Mausolus, a satrap of the Persian Empire and the virtual ruler of Caria, died in 352 BC, his family members decided to do something special to honor his memory.  They erected a grand tomb in his honor – one that was so grand that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the World in ancient times.

Whether they realize it or not, people today still have a close connection to Mausolus because his name morphed into the word “mausoleum,” which is used to describe any grand tomb that houses casketed remains.  Mausoleums have become a critical part of cemeteries and the grieving process.  While they were once portrayed as being the resting places for society’s elite, today they house the masses – whether it be in columbarium portions or in low-cost crypt space.

Mausolus’s tomb included a pyramidal roof that stood 50 meters high with white marble and lion monuments. Historians believe it was demolished in 1304 in a large earthquake that struck Anatolia.  The remnants of its stones and pillars were used to build the Bodrum Castle, located in southwest Turkey.

Some mausoleums today are just as grand as that of their namesake.  Built by the most expert of architects, they are likely to last much longer than the tomb of the former Persian ruler.  And just like the first mausoleum ever built, the ones being constructed today are establishing new trends and can be considered works of art.  Their architects closely monitor what consumers want and try staying abreast of the latest trends.

Niches Now the Norm

Perhaps the most noticeable long-term trend when it comes to mausoleum construction these days is that mausoleums alone are no longer that popular.  The majority of them are built with some sort of columbarium section to hold cremated remains.

“That really started taking off 10 years ago,” said Jim Mork, superintendent of Mork Mausoleum Construction, a small firm based in Waukesha, Wis. (emphasis added)  “First, the Catholic diocese started allowing it, and now you are starting to see more of the Jewish cemeteries do so.  Before, that was never allowed – so those two big religious groups have really influenced how things are.  The people pretty much said, ‘This is ridiculous; this is what we are going to do.’  And how are you going to stop them?  So, it was in the best interest of everyone to allow this.”

Randy Fiscel, the horticulture inspector in charge of the six municipal cemeteries in Des Moines, Iowa, agreed that columbariums – either separate or as part of the mausoleum – are taking on a greater importance.  When Fiscel assumed his post in 1999, there were plans to build a $250,000 mausoleum/columbarium.  Over time, however, the columbarium portion has taken precedence, he said.  Fiscel noted that in his county, the cremation rate is 30 to 35 percent.  “For the Midwest, that seems high to me,” he said.  He added that funeral directors often hear questions about whether there are any niche spaces available at the cemetery’s 1912 “Abbey” at Glendale Cemetery but don’t field as many queries regarding casket space.

Larry B. Justice, an architect with Matthews Gibraltar Architecture, said that with the rising trend of cremation, whenever he has a blank wall in a mausoleum, he tries to place a niche bank both on the inside and outside of the mausoleum.  “It’s just another revenue source for the cemeterian, and they are taking advantage of that.”

According to Jeff Johnson, regional director of sales for Carrier Mausoleum Construction (CMC), which does business in the United States and Canada, cremation continues to have an effect on mausoleum construction and likely will for quite some time as rates continue to increase.  “We are including more interior niche rooms near the front entrance or a separate room to isolate the cremation customer from the crypt customer because they tend to be two different types of visitation and memorialization,” Johnson explained.  “It doesn’t seem to be as marketable to intermix the two different types of interment options within a corridor of a mausoleum as it was in the past,” he said.

Even though casketed space and space for cremated remains are kept separate, it is still possible for loved ones to be buried close together, however.  The areas can be adjacent to each other so that spouses who disagree about burial options can still be close together, which can be a significant attraction to customers.

Justice, the architect from Matthews Gibraltar, noted that he has even heard of some people who buy crypt spaces for the cremated remains so they can be next to a family member.  “After all, there is no rule saying you can’t put cremated remains in a crypt space,” he said.

Mausoleums Going ‘Green’

Johnson said that trends that emphasize humanity’s connection to the natural world have been popular recently. But he cautioned that the whims of consumers tend to change every several months.

“We’re trying to bring in waterfalls, natural materials like slate tiles, stone on the walls.  A couple buildings we are currently doing in Toronto have domed ceilings with skies painted on with backlighting.  We are including a lot more plant material, more of a tranquil garden sort of atmosphere.”  Johnson noted that CMC is seeing this trend of natural offerings in the United States as well.

Justice also chimed in on environmental trends, noting that “green roofs” planted with grass or wildflowers are increasing in popularity.  Such innovations can help the astute cemeterian deal with local zoning regulations, he said.

“One problem we sometimes run into regarding mausoleums is that jurisdictions are becoming a lot more aware of drainage issues, and anytime you build a building, you are creating additional impervious surfaces,” Justice said. “So you have to show how you are handling that additional runoff.  Mausoleums with green roofs help to reduce that runoff,” he explained.

Another reason these green roofs are popular is because there are some cemeteries where people actually look down on mausoleums because of uneven elevation.  “And that is just not desirable, because you see that black roofing plus the crypt vents,” he said.  “It’s just not a pretty thing to look at but a grass roof or one with flowers is more appealing.”

Justice also worked on a solar powered mausoleum that was built at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.  “The power company wanted about $70,000 to run a power line to the mausoleum,” Justice said.  “It was in a big cemetery and for what the client wanted, you didn’t need lighting per se because the cemetery was closed at night. But you needed some light.  Plus, there are two low-powered exhaust fans so it was kind of a convenient circle relationship – the sun comes up and heats up the space, and the solar panels produce electricity that runs the fans. So it was a symbiotic relationship.”

The good thing about including solar panels in mausoleums is that it can actually help cemeterians save money while helping the environment.  “I’ve come to see that cemeterians are definitely bottom-line people,” Justice said.  “And they also tend to be forward thinking.  So, architects in general, we’ve kind of adopted that.”

Tom Kane, chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Catholic Cemeteries Conference, added that conference members are paying close attention to the green burial movement which he finds interesting.  He said he likes rock formation columbariums and other new trends.

Honoring Pets

Mork, who has been involved in the mausoleum business for 30 years, predicts that the industry will soon see more mausoleums and columbariums designed specifically to house the remains of pets.  Mork Mausoleum hasn’t built any such mausoleums yet, but it is an area the firm would like to get involved in.  “I have been starting to call pet cemeteries in the Milwaukee area to tell them I can build these niches for them,” Mork said.  “They don’t have to go out of the state to have this done.”  (Emphasis added)
Tom Flynn, owner of Hillcrest Memorial Park in Hermitage, Pa., which has a pet section and a section where people and pets can be buried together, foresees a day when it will be commonplace for people and pets to be buried together inside columbarium niches.  “We’ve already had initial conversations with a bronze company to put in niches and to really do it up nice,” Flynn said.  “I think we will have it designed this year and built by the end of this year or spring of this year.  We have a rather large, expansive property.  The big thing is the design, and that will help us add units.  They usually come approximately 90 to each unit.”

Flynn added that one of the things that makes him believe that people will increasingly be entombed in columbariums with their pets is because pets are usually cremated.  “And cremation is rising so rapidly that we really think this could be the market, and it’s not as expensive as a full-blown mausoleum.”

As far as mausoleum builders go, Flynn said he has been very impressed with Trigard.  He plans to go to them or BLP Bronze International for columbariums that will be for both people and pets.  A representative from BLP visited Flynn and showed him a brochure on what the company offers, and he was impressed.  Flynn paid special attention to what suppliers had to offer at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s recent annual convention.

Johnson with CMC noted that Canada is lagging a little bit behind the United States when it comes to marketing products to pet lovers.  “However, because of the large population of elderly people – especially with pets – (this trend) could grow substantially, depending on what our industry does to offer products and services,” he said.

CMC has sold two exterior columbariums over the past several years – one for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Ontario and a private columbarium for a businessman who had 22 pets.  Six months after CMC sold the columbariums to the businessman, he had six urns inside, Johnson noted.

Most mausoleum builders are in agreement that this trend has lots of room for growth.  All you have to do is consider how important pets are to their owners these days.  Justice, the architect with Matthews Gibraltar, knows this all too well.  “I had an office in a cemetery at one time and a woman had a husband and a pet, and she took much better care of the pet’s gravesite than she did her husband’s,” he said.

Negative Trends

A demographic trend that isn’t necessarily effecting mausoleum design but that is having an effect on the firms that build them is that today’s society is more transient, Mork noted.  That means it can be harder for cemeteries to sell preneed because families see little value in buying space at a mausoleum in Wisconsin when they may move to California.  That holds true even for himself, Mork said.  “I might not be here in Wisconsin later, because when my kids graduate, and if they move out west, I’ll move out to be with my kids,” he said.  “A lot of the cemeteries used to pre-sell, and they are having a harder and harder time with their presales because you have more people becoming transient”  Despite the reluctance of some cemeteries to buy mausoleums, Mork insisted that, “If you build it, they will come.  You are going to fill it.” (Emphasis added)

Mork pointed out that the mausoleum is still preferred by many consumers.  When you factor in the cost of a vault, burial plot and headstone, the space is often cheaper.  And they are usually nice and warm.  Visitors to the cemetery don’t have to worry about traipsing through the cemetery and then trying to find the grave of their loved one after a snowstorm.  (Emphasis added)

Another negative is that there are more cemetery owners and operators who have no previous construction experience, Mork said.  Years ago, that wasn’t the case.  That allows unethical mausoleum builders to offer their services at low prices – beating the bids of better, more experienced firms.  The low-ballers either do shoddy work or hit cemeterians with hidden costs, Mork said.  “They price low and then hit everyone with the extras at the end,” Mork said.  “But the cemeterians aren’t comparing apples to apples.  They really need to look at the contracts and ask better questions, but the people running the cemeteries don’t have construction experience.”  (Emphasis added)

Mausoleum architects also have to deal with the available materials, and sometimes what they want to use and what is out there don’t match.  Justice noted that recently, he has begun seeing a shortage of quality Perlato marble, one of the most popular marbles.  “It happened before, and it’s happening again – quarries are just running out of good, quality Perlato,” he said.  “So we are switching to other types except in those cases where cemeteries already have Perlato and they have to match it, but the quality has gone down again.  That’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen in the past several months.”

There are only so many rock deposits, and as a result of the Perlato shortage, stones from China have been increasing in popularity, Justice said.  “They are somewhat less expensive, and they come in a variety of different colors and shades.”

Justice added that another issue that is usually a negative as far as cemeterians are concerned is that an international building code that states have adopted in the past few years requires that whenever you have assembly use of a building, you must also have toilets.  “This is an expensive proposition for most cemeterians because their mausoleums tend to be isolated or far from water sources, and if you don’t have a sewer available, you need a septic tank, and that takes up space,” he said.  In the past, municipalities would not enforce such a requirement as long as there were facilities with toilets within 150 feet of the mausoleum, but that is no longer the case.

“I’m personally looking into if it is possible to amend the building codes,” Justice said.  “That’s going to be something we are going to be pursuing for cemeterians because this will be an expense.  If you have to deal with rocky soil and just the availability of water, you may have to dig a whole new well.  Plus, when you put in toilets, you also have to provide a drinking fountain or a slop sink for mopping.”

Justice shared the story of one cemeterian who had been selling space at a mausoleum for three years and all of a sudden was told he needed to install toilets.  “And it added about $7,500 to $10,000 to his total cost,” he sighed.

Other Issues and Trends

Kane, with the Catholic Cemeteries Conference, said most cemeteries these days are going the master plan route rather than just having a single mausoleum here and a single one there.  At All Saints Diocese in Wilmington, Del., where Kane is superintendent, the cemetery plans on eventually having seven buildings, each one depicting two Stations of the Cross.  “We are doing it in segments and tying in a religious theme, and what I hear from some of the committee members is that they are doing likewise,” he said.

Kane added that some conference members tend to add columbarium units onto an existing building because it often takes time to complete a new structure.  “The demand is definitely there,” he said.  “It’s a challenge for cemetery administrators to try to find a location and make it look like part of the original building.”

Aesthetic preferences are constantly changing, but customers have recently been demanding earth-tone colors that go along with their desire to highlight their connection to nature, according to Johnson, the CMC director.  “We’re trying to use colors that will bring a more uplifting feeling than the dark, dingy building of the past,” he said.  “We are also including lots of strip lighting above the crypt faces that gives more light.”

One of the challenges that CMC faces when trying to sell its product is that many consumers don’t really know what a mausoleum or columbarium is, or the different options they can choose.  “We need to explain it to people before we advertise it,” Johnson said.  “People spend more money if you give them the right options.  A lot of our customers are willing to spend more for the details.”

Many cemeterians underestimate how much creativity people are willing and actually wanting to embrace, Johnson said.  “We clarify with our customers what details are important for their families, whether they want a washroom, music, types of features, security, etc.,” Johnson said.  “For us, it’s about being more progressive in our thinking for the consumer.”

According to Johnson, it is CMC’s creative thinking that has allowed the company to help its clients sell a high percentage of crypts in the first two years instead of five.  As a result, the company is constantly watching trends to see how to market its products.  He added that it is also important to share new alternatives and trends with customers.  “Nine times out of 10, they will see how successful it is and buy into it,” he said.  “People will only buy what you have to offer them.”

Mork said most of his design elements have not changed dramatically.  While some firms are incorporating stained-glass windows, bronze statues and trinkets, many cemeteries don’t buy into such flamboyance.  “That stuff is very expensive,” he cautioned.  “It’s ornamental, and do you really need to spend five figures on something to make a mausoleum pretty?  Or do you take that five figures and put it into another building that will generate three times the amount of money you put into it?”  (Emphasis added)

Most customers are, however, choosing to adorn mausoleums and columbariums with lighter colors.  “You used to see a lot of dark walnuts,” Mork said.  “Now, we are seeing a lot of birch and light oak that is not so gothic.  The colors are a little brighter.”  But he added that most cemeteries that already have a mausoleum tend to try to stick with the color scheme of the existing structure to avoid a hodge-podge of designs.  (Emphasis added)

Also, it may seem obvious, but the spaces set aside for caskets in mausoleums are increasingly being designed so that they are larger, Mork noted.  These are times of plenty and people are eating more.  They need a bigger space to comfortably spend eternity.  (Emphasis added)

Another aspect of mausoleums that is changing is their placement within the cemetery, according to Justice.  “I’m seeing a lot more of them being placed at the perimeter of cemeteries,” the Matthews Gibraltar architect said.  “A lot of cemeteries are running out of good land space and they want to preserve that, so we are seeing more mausoleums being placed around the exterior because they block undesirable views of adjacent property owners. Instead of putting up a tree line, you can put up a mausoleum to add some revenue.”

Justice added that cemeterians who want to build a mausoleum in phases are increasingly building a garden mausoleum first.  Then, about 24 feet away, they will have another garden mausoleum erected.  “Then, you have roof put over between then and that becomes a chapel,” he said.  “But that requires planning and telling the customers that if you are on a particular side, you are eventually going to be in the chapel.”

The bottom line is that as time goes on, the tastes of customers change, and so do their needs.  You can’t control personal preferences or environmental regulations, but you can at least be aware of them and do your best to give your customers what they want.  By remaining informed, you will be able to maintain or boost your profitability while helping families memorialize their loved ones.