Abandoned Mausoleums as a Metaphor for Not Thinking About the Future

Last week, I watched JPVideos’ YouTube series about the abandoned Good Shepherd Mausoleum. The short version of the story is: the previous owner claims someone forged a check to steal all the money in the perpetual care fund and that because of his health problems he couldn’t fix the leaky roof, then he died, nobody paid property taxes for a few years so the local government sold the property through a tax auction in 2005, the new owners claimed they had no idea it was a mausoleum and cemetery when they bought it, they didn’t repair the roof, in 2010 they stopped paying property taxes, the overhang began collapsing which made it dangerous to access some of the crypts, water got in through the roof, so much mold grew inside the mausoleum that it was dangerous to breathe, in 2015 the local government condemned the building, every year the building falls deeper into disrepair, it’s only a matter of time until it collapses with the caskets inside.

Why doesn’t anyone do anything? Well, a few people are doing something. Volunteers mow the grass so that the graveyard stays in decent shape. A local funeral director and a lawyer have a setup where they can get a court order to remove caskets and remove them for the mausoleum for 3000 USD each (they make no money off this, but they need to charge money to cover their third-party costs). Why do they need court orders? Because the owners refuse to give written permission to remove caskets. Without a court order to override the lack of written consent, removing caskets without the cemetery owner’s written consent would be illegal. The funeral director says his people have to wear hard hats and respirators when they remove caskets because pieces of roof sometimes fall on their heads and the air is dangerous to breathe. He has pulled out at least 15 caskets, but the most recent updates say that at least 40 caskets remain stuck in the mausoleum. The bottom crypts are in pristine condition, the funeral director says, but water from the leaky roof has already penetrated the upper crypts, and it’s only a matter of time until the leaks cause the caskets to degrade and the water to mix with the human remains and embalming chemicals. When that happens–and when the soup of human remains, embalming chemicals, and rainwater spills out, it might be too dangerous for him to remove any more caskets.

The 3000 USD people have to pay to get a casket out doesn’t cover the cost of a new burial or a cremation. So it actually costs more than 3000 USD.

Why aren’t the owners doing something about this? At this point, the cost of fixing the building is huge. Even the cost of removing the remaining caskets and cremating them, let’s say 4000 USD per casket and 40 caskets, would cost a minimum of 160,000 USD, and burying the caskets or interring them in another mausoleum would be even more expensive. (Also, I don’t know if it’s legal to cremate the remains without the permission of the next of kin, that might not even be a legal option). That explains why the owners abandoned the property.

Why aren’t the families suing the owners? I don’t know. My guess is that it’s cheaper to remove the caskets than to file a lawsuit, or there is some legal quirk which makes it difficult to hold the owners legally responsible.

Why doesn’t the local government do something? They could reclaim the property due to non-payment of taxes since 2010. But then the local government would be responsible, and the local officials have made it clear they don’t want to spend ‘taxpayer money’ on repairing the building or moving caskets. So they prefer to keep the mausoleum under private ownership.

The costs are imposed not on the people who caused this mess, but the people who care the most or have no choice. In this case, the living people who care the most are family members of some of the dead. Some want to visit the crypts of their loved ones but it’s dangerous until the caskets are moved to a safe location. Those who could afford thousands of dollars to get their loved ones out have already done so. More want to remove their loved ones, but lack the means. But the greatest cost is borne by those who have no agency–the dead. Do they care? Perhaps not, but I bet if they knew when they were alive none of the would’ve wanted to be interred in this mausoleum.

Many people who comment on these videos are astonished that the state of Pennsylvania hasn’t intervened. Well, why would the state of Pennsylvania intervene? The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Pennsylvania says that the state government has practically no oversight over the maintenance of cemeteries.

This is not an isolated case. Look up ‘Roger Williams Memorial Park’ to find a mausoleum in even worse disrepair than Good Shepherd (I’m not posting links because some images are even more disturbing that what’s seen at Good Shepherd). The Roger Williams mausoleum must’ve looked gorgeous in the 1940s, but now… if the roof had been repaired 20 years ago, the building might still be in good condition today. But the sisters who were the last owners had neglected the upkeep since the 1980s, and after they died they left no money to maintain the building. Some families have paid 6000+ USD to have caskets relocated, a funeral director arranged for the family of another funeral director (no family relation) moved to a cemetery, and the Department of Veterans Affairs paid for World War II veterans to be pulled out and buried in a veterans’ cemetery. Yet hundreds of caskets remain inside.

Amazingly, the vents in the Roger Williams mausoleum still work so well that nobody smells the corpses (according to one YouTuber who has entered multiple times). But as Caitlin Doughty explains, sometimes the vents get blocked (confirmed by many comments on the video, as well as various news stories about mausoleums falling into disrepair).

After watching these videos, YouTube’s algorithm showed me more and more news stories of mausoleums across the United States falling into various states of disrepair. This mausoleum in Oklahoma has a ‘happy ending’: somehow, the owner managed to raise hundreds of thousands of USD to get the mausoleum back into good repair (where did the money come from?) But is it really the ending? One day, that owner will die, and given how much money he’s already spent on renovation, I doubt there’s much of a perpetual care fund (in the first news report, from before the renovation, the owner explained that when he bought the mausoleum its perpetual care fund was gone). Will the next owners keep it in good repair?

Why does anyone choose to be interred in a mausoleum? Reasons I’ve found are: 1) some people are so scared of being underground they don’t want their remains to be buried and b) some mausoleums are nice and people like the idea of their loved ones visiting them in a beautiful mausoleum and c) mausoleums are a ‘deluxe’ option for the dead (i.e. conspicuous consumption). (And, of course, in New Orleans they use mausoleums because of the high water table).

None of these people (except maybe the people of New Orleans) seem to have thought about the long-term future of mausoleums. Will the funds to maintain a building last forever? How do you guarantee that everyone who manages a mausoleum will be honest in handling money and committed to keeping the roof in good condition for the rest of time? I don’t see how you can guarantee any of those things for centuries, let alone millennia.

(Yes, I know some ancient Roman mausoleums have stayed intact for millennia. That doesn’t mean you can guarantee that outcome).

What’s remarkable about the Good Shepherd Mausoleum isn’t that it fell into disrepair and is on the verge of collapse it’s that it happened while so many children and grandchildren of the deceased were still alive and able to advocate on the behalf of their parents and grandparents.

I wish this lack of long-term thinking only applied to mausoleums, because mausoleums are easy to avoid as long as nobody you care about is interred in one. Alas, this lack of long-term thinking applies to so many of our civilization-wide crises. How do people intend to keep an industrial civilization running after nonrenewable fuel sources are exhausted? Yes, it’s possible, or at least it was possible if we’d began serious work on the transition in the 1970s, but that work isn’t happening.

Heck, how does Suffolk Northern believe it can keep trains operating in the long-term while it cuts down maintenance and reduces the workforce? Well, I guess the executives and investors don’t care about the railroad’s long-term future because no matter how much they exploit the workers Congress won’t let them strike and the costs of hazardous derailments are borne by the residents of towns like East Palestine, not themselves. By the time the costs take down the company itself, they’ll have already extracted plenty of money, just as the original mausoleum owners are often dead themselves when the mausoleums turn into health hazards.

Durable solutions to handling corpses: burial which allows for natural decomposition, cremation + scattering. Durable solution to using up nonrenewable energy sources: reduce energy consumption so much that renewable energy source can meet the demand (starting point: stop increases to energy consumption).

Costs aren’t imposed on the people based on justice or fairness. They are imposed on the people who have the least power, whether it’s the dead or people not yet born.

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