Design for the Departed
October 1, 2007
Floyd Ward knows how to benefit from land development. A professional land surveyor registered in Texas and Colorado with 37 years of surveying experience under his belt, Ward started his firm, Accutex Survey Systems Inc., in Austin in 1981. He found his niche in a market area that is inundated with land development: cemeteries. For 23 years, he has honed his skills and expertise to provide services to the cemetery industry as a self-coined “cemetery development specialist.”
Just as every surveyor should be well versed in the laws that govern his profession, Ward knows that every specialist surveyor should be knowledgeable in the laws and operation of the area in which he specializes. As a cemetery development specialist, Ward has taken his career beyond land surveying and made the extra effort to learn the laws, operation and design factors of the cemetery industry, including Texas cemetery laws, and the operation and management of cemeteries both large and small. It is a strategy that serves him well--a consultant surveyor in a niche market that melds his love for land surveying and the challenge of the cemetery industry.
Downsizing to AdvanceIn the early years of his 26-year-old company, Ward marketed to every possible user of survey services. His philosophy was to keep the company small to better serve the clientele. In the mid-’80s, the firm was thriving. It had up to four field crews, a researcher, three technicians, a couple of draftsmen, a field services director, a technical services director, a secretary and Ward as the registered land surveyor. In the late ‘80s, the roller coaster economy of Austin and its development industry went bust when the banks and savings and loans associations collapsed. Forced to cut back on personnel, Ward tried what he had been intending to do from the birth of his organization: keep it small. Very small--a one-man show.
“I have been a one-man operation since 1993 and it suits me to a tee,” Ward says. “Over the years I had developed techniques to do land surveys solo.” With 37 years in the profession, Ward comes from the days of chains, plumb bobs, K&E transits, Dumpy levels and the Monroe crank calculator. Using three prism poles with tripods and a Lietz SDM 3E total station and field books, Ward has performed large boundary surveys, ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys, topographic surveys and aerial control surveys--and developed tens of thousands of cemetery spaces without the benefit of other crewmembers or technicians. In the office he’s used Simplicity Systems’ (Carlson Software, Maysville, Ky.) Survey 4.0 and GenericCADD 6.1 DOS-based software programs.
A couple of years ago, he upgraded to a Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) SET3 230RM robotic total station with a Carlson Explorer II data collector. In the office he now uses Carlson Survey 2006. “It was a matter of justifying to myself that it was worth moving away from my lightning speed ten key ability to the nano speed of data collector coordinate file transfers,” Ward says a bit jokingly. “I admit I was slow moving into the current technology and still have a long way to go, but I do have the advantage over the newly licensed surveyors in that I have actual experience of the techniques used on older surveys. My experience goes farther than button pushing.”
Learning the Cemetery SectorWard estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of land surveyors in the United States might step (professionally) onto a cemetery once or twice in their entire career, and the other 80 percent have never worked within their boundaries. “This fact becomes evident to me every time I enter an established cemetery,” Ward says. “There are usually no established controls and there are overlaps in sections and misalignments of grave spaces or wasted space due to poor planning.”
In modern cemetery developments, some of the accountability of these problems lies with the cemetery operators. “In their minds, a surveyor is a surveyor and all surveying is the same,” Ward says. “And the mystical devices surveyors mount on top of tripods somehow magically know where everything should go.” Or so that is the impression. The cemetery manager often hires a survey firm to lay out a new section, then a year or two later, hires another firm to add another section. Several years of this practice eventually results in a hodgepodge of styles, methods and standards.
A large chunk of memorial gardens and perpetual care cemeteries are owned by funeral home operators and often only as a sideline revenue generator to their main business of funeral services, Ward says. And because the funeral business can be overwhelming and time consuming while funeral operators juggle multiple responsibilities with the deceased, the families and the funeral specifics, they rarely have the time to deal with the management, maintenance and development of the business or the design for future sections.
“Funeral and cemetery operators are, for the most part, sales oriented and not particularly detail or technically oriented when it comes to the actual operation and development of a cemetery,” Ward says. “Yet the greatest fear of an operator is the potential for burying deceased in the wrong burial space, which can lead to a lawsuit.”
For many cemeteries, especially smaller ones in country areas or cemetery associations, such problems might stem from not utilizing the benefit of a surveyor’s expertise. In an attempt to save money, amateurs attempt to practice their own surveying and lay out their own sections of grave spaces. Unknowingly, they end up with trapezoidal-shaped (rather than squared) sections. This can and often does cause the burials to overlap into more than one grave space, ultimately losing valuable space and any possibility of recovering the lost land without disinterment and re-interment (a practice that is highly frowned upon in the cemetery industry).
“Any surveyor who plans to provide competent services to an endowment funded, perpetual care, or even a country cemetery association needs to understand the operation of a cemetery, as well as the different types of products a cemetery can provide,” Ward says, referring to land spaces, lawn crypts, cremation gardens, columbariums, mausoleums, niche walls and private estates. “It is also important to have a good working knowledge of the state’s cemetery laws that govern them.”
These are the specifics that Ward has diligently learned over the years and through his experience on cemetery lands. He applies this knowledge and his surveying expertise to 22 cemeteries, including Wedel Cemetery in Heidenheimer, Texas, located on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line.
Updating Wedel CemeteryIn 2006, Ward embarked on the Wedel Cemetery project. It was not a monumental-sized project by any means but “an interesting endeavor,” Ward says. Wedel Cemetery was originally established as a family graveyard (circa 1895) by B.F. Wedel, owner of 301 acres in Bell County near the small community of Heidenheimer. The only deed reference to the cemetery, save for a one-acre graveyard in the northwest corner (no other description), was when Wedel’s widow and children sold a portion of the property in 1910. Years later, the family descendents formed an informal cemetery association to collect funds for the care of the family graveyard. The association had no apparent written bylaws or guidelines in which to operate and maintain the final resting place of their dearly departed. And as these family members aged, they eventually became tired and uninterested in the necessary board of directors responsibilities, not to mention the archiving of maps or records of interment. Last year, the responsibility of the cemetery landed in the lap of Nan Pryor who has family members interred at Wedel.
When an adjacent landowner intended to donate an additional acre to the cemetery, Pryor began calling funeral homes and cemetery operators to seek advice on how to operate and expand the cemetery. She was referred to Ward, who is well-known in the Texas cemetery circles as both a surveyor and a knowledgeable cemetery resource and consultant.
Pryor and Ward met at the cemetery site and exchanged documents. No maps existed to determine the layout of the existing graves aside from a sketch with rectangles containing the names of people buried at the cemetery. The sketch in no way represented what was actually on the ground. After meeting with Pryor, Ward made a search of the public records, county historical commission and county museum to see if there were any records, maps or deeds of the cemetery. No additional documents were found.
To decide how the additional acre could be developed, Ward determined that it would be necessary to do some preliminary work on the existing cemetery to get an idea of how it was configured. Knowing that the association most likely did not have the funds to pay for a thorough survey of the existing cemetery, he offered to do the initial work pro-bono. “This took the pressure off of just making a profit, and just doing some good old-fashioned surveying and investigation for the love of it,” Ward says.
Every headstone and all estate curbing and fencing were surveyed and digitally photographed. When processed, Ward was able to analyze how the cemetery was originally laid out, and then created a master drawing of the cemetery with grave space dimensions and numbering. Ward also needed to know the true location of a vehicle driveway traversing through the cemetery to incorporate it into the additional one-acre design. With the newly drawn map of the cemetery, records can be made as to who is buried in what grave space by number. “These records will be helpful to the associations responsible for keeping track of interments as well as genealogists and historians,” Ward says.
Using Microsoft Excel, Ward matched each name from the digital photographs of the headstones with the newly numbered spaces. This gave the cemetery association a record of all known burials and all known available spaces. It also gave them a model to maintain burial records in the new section and the ability to sort the data by name, grave space, or year of birth or death.
Monumenting a CemeteryIn the cemetery industry, monumentation means something different than it does to a surveyor; to cemetery developers and owners it refers to the headstone marker. When communicating with the cemetery industry, Ward says, surveyors must speak of survey monumentation in a way that does not confuse the issues. And knowing how to properly pin a cemetery is equally important.
Proper pinning of cemetery plots does not mean marking every corner of every single grave space. In a one-acre piece of land with 1,000 to 1,200 burial spaces, it would be impractical to mark all corners; it also would be extremely expensive and a disservice to the cemetery client. Instead, spaces should be laid out in sections (called lots) of 12 or 16: a rectangle with six spaces on top and six on the bottom of a 12-space rectangle, or eight on top of eight in a 16-space lot. If each lot is laid end to end and then top to bottom, one pin set in the center of each lot of 12 or 16 is the practical method of marking burial spaces. Ward uses custom made 5-inch-by-5-inch aluminum alloy numbered plates with a spike on the bottom and four fins protruding from the spike to prevent the plates from rotating on the ground. “I number the 12- or 16-space section as a lot, then I letter each quadrant of the section A, B, C, D and then finally, number one through four, left to right, each space in each quadrant,” Ward explains. “The number of plates/pins are easily found, and cemetery grounds personnel can easily mark off a grave for opening simply by finding three or four number pins and measuring the appropriate distance to the specified space.”
Beyond the GraveEven though Ward slates himself as a “cemetery development specialist,” he does not put all his eggs in one basket. He is often called on large commercial surveys, topographic and design surveys, and sometimes upper end residential land title surveys. “I try to keep my name out there,” he says. “You never know when some new miracle drug will come out and extend life far longer than we can imagine, making cemeteries become obsolete … until that time, the cemetery operators know who to call when they are ready for development or consulting.”
For now, Ward plans to continue his niche work for the cemetery industry, and is working on new strategies and methods to help smaller cemeteries gain revenues by adopting some of the practices of larger cemeteries. “I have been trying to show [the smaller cemeteries] that by proper planning and design, they can actually charge more for their spaces (some weren’t even charging and relying only on donations), then encourage them to put the sales proceeds into some sort of interest-bearing CD or money market fund,” Ward explains. “Then they can eventually use the interest as the source for maintaining the cemetery. This is basically how the state (of Texas) mandates the larger perpetual care cemetery to do it. While the cemetery cannot use the principal funds, it can draw from the interest, which, over time, can become a very huge source of income for operating the cemetery. So in a smaller way I’m trying to teach the associations to be sort of a perpetual care type cemetery.” He adds that the use of the Excel spreadsheets he created help to maintain burial and space availability records. While larger cemeteries are able to utilize sophisticated and expensive inventory software to maintain records, this is overkill and overly expensive for smaller associations.
In real estate, the term “Highest and Best Use” is often used in determining property value and development. This philosophy runs deep with Ward; he loves the idea of turning rural undeveloped land valued at $2,000 to $25,000 per acre into a value near 1.2 million per acre. That’s what cemetery development can do.
“I love every aspect of the survey hunt,” he says. “ I love it so much I can’t wait for Monday to roll around. I keep thinking that there are just not enough days in the workweek.”