Americans aren't going for coffins like they used to. Cremation is becoming more popular and many families opt to dispose of the ashes somewhere other than a cemetery.
That's not good news for the funeral and cemetery business. Arne Swanson, market director for Dignity Memorial Service Corporation International, recalls watching a family spreading the ashes of a loved one on the fairway of a golf course.
"I thought, 'There must be a better way,' " he says. "There just simply was not a product to meet the needs of this family."
So Swanson has come up with such a product: A memorial "golf park" right in the middle of a hilltop cemetery in Bellevue, Wash., with views of downtown Seattle and the Olympic mountains.
It's a perfectly playable putting green, built over an ossuary, a sealed vault for ashes. There's also a rough and a sand trap — which can also accommodate ashes.
"If you spent a lot of time in the sand trap while you were playing golf, why, here at Sunset Hills Memorial Park, you have the opportunity to spend an eternity in the trap," says Swanson.
Swanson says he's already made three sales to people who want to be buried at the golf hole, or their families. The company plans to expand the memorial golf hole concept to another one of its properties in Phoenix, and perhaps Las Vegas later.
Swanson also might contemplate products that memorialize other kinds of sports. But with its emphasis on quiet and lawn care, golf is ideal for the cemetery environment.
"The one unique thing about Sunset Hills is that we guarantee you that everyone here finishes six under," says Swanson.
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All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, Dia de los Muertos, this time of year, many cultures remember those who have gone before. But funeral customs are changing.
And NPR's Martin Kaste reports on one cemetery company's efforts to keep up.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Americans aren't going for coffins like they used to. Cremation is on the rise, as is the number of families who decide to dispose of the ashes somewhere other than a cemetery. Arne Swanson recalls witnessing just such a scene.
ARNE SWANSON: My son and I were playing golf at a local golf course, and a group of individuals came out to the fairway. And later we found out the family were broadcasting their loved one who had been cremated on the fairway.
KASTE: As it happens, Swanson is a market director for Dignity Memorial Service Corporation International, and he realized he was looking at lost business.
SWANSON: There just simply was not a product to meet the needs of this family.
KASTE: Now, three years later, there is such a product.
SWANSON: So here we have our Sunset Hills Memorial Golf Park. And this was created to honor those who are passionate about the game of golf.
KASTE: In a hilltop cemetery with views of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains, a brand new, perfectly playable golf hole. The ashes of the dearly departed can be poured into a sealed vault that's hidden underneath the putting green. And that's just the beginning of the interment possibilities.
SWANSON: Phase one includes, of course, the green itself, the ossuary, the water feature, the leader board, and then of course the large sand trap which has been gridded out. And there are actually burial spaces in the sand trap for those who have been cremated.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KASTE: I really don't understand golf sensibility enough to understand why would someone want the sand trap? Isn't kind of hell versus heaven?
SWANSON: Well, it is. But if you spent a lot of time in the sand trap while you were playing golf, while here at Sunset Hills Memorial Park, you have the opportunity to spend an eternity in the trap.
KASTE: At this point, you may be wondering whether this whole thing is a bit of a put-on. But it appears to be legit. Swanson says he's already sold three plots, if you can call them that. Still, he does likes his little golf jokes.
SWANSON: The one thing we don't allow here at Sunset Hills Memorial Golf Park are any mulligans.
SWANSON: This is permanent.
KASTE: No mulligans.
SWANSON: No mulligans.
KASTE: Oh, so...
SWANSON: Once you're here, you're here.
KASTE: Got you.
SWANSON: A mulligan in golf is a do-over.
KASTE: I understand.
The company plans to expand the memorial golf hole concept to another one of its properties in Phoenix. And after that, maybe Las Vegas. Swanson says he might contemplate products that memorialize other kinds of sports, but really, golf is ideal. With its emphasis on quiet and lawn care, it just fits in among the gravestones.
SWANSON: The one unique thing about Sunset Hills is we guarantee you that everyone here finishes six under.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SWANSON: I got a million of them.
KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.