When Anthony Covington took over the management of Mount Olivet Cemetery early last year, his first order of business was to shut it down. If you hadn’t purchased a plot in advance, your late loved one wasn’t getting buried there. Hundreds of prospective clients were turned away. Covington says that another local cemetery superintendent, overwhelmed by all the diverted business, called to find out when Mount Olivet would reopen. “I can’t handle it!” Covington’s competitor told him. “My cemetery is starting to look like Beirut!”
But Covington had a product to protect. His 57-acre cemetery off Bladensburg Road NE was almost 150 years old. The more than 40,000 souls resting in peace weren’t budging, and only a few thousand burial plots remained for the souls still parading through the gates. Just as in the rest of the District, land was at a premium. Every new 3-by 8-foot hole in the ground had to be slotted just right, or else it would jeopardize the placement of future burials.
So for six months, the cemetery backhoe didn’t get much use, but the handheld sonar did. Covington and a surveyor peered under pathways and among existing plots, discovering untapped real estate to add to the inventory. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve found 500 burial sites,” says Covington. “I’ve sold all but eight of them.”
With demand like this, District residents may want to get cracking on their graveyard accommodations—after all, you’ll be spending more time in your plot than that U Street condo you’ve had your eye on. All of the city’s several dozen cemeteries are full or nearly so, and many still open for new burials are pushing up against the end of their operational lives. Mount Olivet has about four to five years left before all its plots are spoken for. The Glenwood Cemetery, 48 acres of more than 44,000 dead people off Lincoln Road NE, celebrated its 150th birthday last month; superintendent Terrance N. Adkins estimates it has about 1,500 spaces and three to four years left. The 197-year-old Congressional Cemetery, final home to J. Edgar Hoover, John Philip Sousa, and more than 60,000 other dead, is down to its last 300 to 400 unreserved plots.
The squeeze plays to Covington’s strengths. In his mid-30s, he embodies a more modern, unsentimental style of cemetery management, driving to work unlike many of his industry colleagues, who make the cemeteries their homes. Before getting into the death industry, he managed an Atlanta railyard, in a job that accustomed him to rigid time tables, heavy containers, and tight fits. “This kind of reminds me of the railyard, but with a softer approach,” Covington says.
Now, as a self-described “cemeterian,” Covington seems to have let his control over an increasingly rare asset awaken other instincts. Within the bounds of Mount Olivet, Covington has become something of a real-estate mogul, a developer to the dead, intent on extracting every last dollar from the ground. With only so much of that ground left, he wants the penniless to stay clear—he prefers customers with big checkbooks and an appreciation for large stone architecture. “You ever hear the phrase ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’?” he asks. “There is a lot of politics, a social class of the dead.”
From the second floor of an undertaker’s cabin, Covington supervises a staff of 22, who are responsible for both Mount Olivet and St. Mary’s, a nearby cemetery that’s been sold out for years. In his office one afternoon, he sits behind a desk blanketed by laminated maps of where the bodies are buried. He leans forward and pulls back the window curtain. Outside rise the monuments to his aspirations: sarcophagi—small temples in size—terraced along the hill. “See that dark-gray one?” he asks, indicating a model with hand-cut granite slabs and an airbrushed depiction of the departed. “Guess how much it cost. $75,000! See that one further up the hill? A hundred and fifty thousand—that’s $9,000 for the endowment.”
Covington often ends his sentences by jabbing at the keys of his printing calculator. Do you know how much it costs him just to cart out dirt? He seems to relish playing morturarial Monopoly. But the cemetery is actually a not-for-profit operation, a single province of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s empire. And Covington’s motive isn’t greed so much as a desire to prepare the cemetery for a well-manicured afterlife.
Graveyard economics punish caretakers who don’t think ahead. If a cemetery reaches old age and there’s nothing in the bank, the maintenance staff will be cut, toppled fences will twist into gnarled heaps, and grass will grow higher than the headstones. So for cemetery managers, the last years are a chance to make up for what might have been generations of financial dithering—a final opportunity to pump up the perpetual-care fund.
Covington will still deal with the down and out—the archdiocese extends charity for Catholic burials. But otherwise, he says he doesn’t go out of his way to help them find their eternal dream home. The price of a bargain-basement burial—$2,238 sans memorial—barely covers costs. “I don’t want to go after the crime victims, the AIDS victims,” he adds, referring to some subsidized programs he says are mired in red tape. “They’ll get compensation from the city, but you know what? I don’t have to jockey for that.”
He estimates that 75 percent of the people who go through the crime-victims program don’t buy headstones or grave markers, which start at $800. For others who come to the door with money in hand, he’ll do the minimum package, but he’s never happy about it. “They’re useless to me; I still got to cut their grass,” Covington says. “At this location, I need the memorials!” he explains, pounding on his desk.
So while Glenwood reports that 90 percent of its business comes from walk-ins—folks often not wealthy enough to buy a plot in advance—“at-need” burials account for only 60 percent of Mount Olivet’s intake.
Covington offers a driving tour of the property’s amenities. He points out one of his favorite headstone: a 19th-century granite cross carved to look like two logs lashed together. He goes up a hill to an old path, which he converted into two precise rows of burial sites with excellent views of the dome of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Then he motors to the opposite end of the cemetery, where he surveys the future: a tall pink mausoleum. “That’s where this industry is going,” says Covington.
Since Mount Olivet can’t grow outward, it might as well grow upward. Other cemetery managers talk up cremations. They’re cheaper and increasingly popular, and an urn may take up a mere cubic foot. But Covington scoffs at this miracle space-saving solution: Lots of Catholics, he says, don’t believe in cremation. With a mausoleum, though, you get a luxury high-rise: five full-size entombments stacked on a footprint the size of one.
“I got location,” says Covington, assessing the cemetery’s long-term prospects. “I’m not that far from Capitol Hill.” The housing projects are going to be gone soon, he says; renters are being phased out. As the neighborhood goes upscale, a ritzier clientele will be attracted to the plots Mount Olivet has left. And when it’s full, he hopes it will be more than a destination for mourners.
“Me, in a perfect world, I would like joggers to come through here,” he says.CP