There’s an urban legend about St. Joseph’s Seminary, the former religious school on Mapleton Road by Carnegie Lake: that some of its students are buried in a field behind its imposing gothic stone chapel. Like most urban legends, it’s mostly false. But like the best urban legends, there’s a grain of truth to it, and in the near future the truth about the old chapel will outdo the legend.
The truth is that there really is a cemetery on the grounds of the seminary. The school was founded in 1914 to educate young men who were interested in becoming Catholic priests, specifically those of the Vincentian order. The campus was home to both a preparatory seminary boarding school and a college. In 1934 the Vincentians built a chapel on the site in the neo-gothic English style. In the 1930s they buried Simon O’Dea in a grave behind the new chapel. He was not a student, but instead was the one of 446 Vincentian priests and brothers who have been laid to rest on the grounds of the seminary.
Under a new plan, the seminary grounds will become a final resting place open to the general public, with more than 25,000 spots available between graves, crypts, and cremation niches. The walls and floor of the chapel itself will become a space to inter ashes and to visit the cremated remains of loved ones. There will be room for about 7,000 traditional graves, 3,000 spots in above-ground crypts, and 2,000 underground. That figure includes a planned garden for cremated remains that will be offered for free to veterans whose ashes are lying unclaimed in funeral homes.
“This project has been six years in the making,” said Bernard “Buzzy” Stoecklein, CEO of CMS Mid-Atlantic, the company is converting the school chapel and grassy school grounds into the Princeton Abbey and Cemetery.
The Vincentians will continue to own the campus, while a new nonprofit company, formed jointly by the Vincentians and Stoecklein, will control the cemetery. Two not-for-profit management companies will market the cemetery and maintain it into the future.
Father Elmer Bauer, treasurer of the Vincentians’ Eastern Province, based in Philadelphia, said the arrangement will allow the historic buildings as well as the tranquil landscape of the campus to be preserved indefinitely.
Bauer, who was a student at the seminary between 1979 and 1983, attended daily mass in the chapel. Throughout the building are images of the Catholic faith, including stained glass windows, altars with images of saints, carvings, and other artwork. In the future, the building will be not just a place of Catholic worship, but instead will be open to people of any faith or of no religious beliefs.
Bauer said that he had many great memories of the chapel, and that it’s a good thing it will now be shared with the public. “It’s fundamentally a holy place, so to be able to share it with more people I think is wonderful,” he said. “I think having it open is a real service to the community.”
The mission of the Vincentians is “religious instruction of the poor, the training of the clergy and foreign missions.” When St. Joseph’s opened, priests and students held prayers in a large, unadorned room. In 1934 the chapel, designed by F. Ferdinand Durang & Son, was completed. The building incorporates 18 altars, a large wrought iron baldacchino, or canopy, and stained glass windows by the famous artist Nicola D’Ascenzo.
In 1926 the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, an order of German nuns who supported the Vincentians, moved in. Further buildings were built in 1961. That period was to be the peak of the seminary as a Vincentian institution. In the decades that followed, fewer and fewer boys were interested in joining the priesthood. The college closed in 1970 at which time St. Josephs College became St. Josephs Preparatory Seminary. In 1989 the chapel was renovated and restored, but the declining numbers continued, and the last classes were held at the seminary in 1992. Later it became a retreat and sanctuary, but that shut down in 2009.
The Vincentians were faced with the dilemma of what to do with their large campus, which was not in use but costly to maintain.”We wanted to preserve the architecture and the beautiful historic look and feel of the buildings,” Bauer said. The solution they found was twofold: lease the school buildings to other educational institutions, and turn 12 acres of the 87-acre grounds into a cemetery. In 2011 Plainsboro Township rezoned the land to allow the cemetery plan to take shape.
Currently the school buildings are occupied by the French-American School and the Laurel School for dyslexic students. Previous tenants include the American Boychoir School and the Wilberforce School, both of which have moved to different campuses — the Boychoir to the campus of Rambling Pines Day Camp in Hopewell and the Wilberforce School to the Windsor Athletic Club on Clarksville Road.
When the Vincentians went looking for a company to manage the cemetery, they ended up connecting with CMS, based in Pittsburgh. Stoecklein, who is a second-generation cemetery owner, said the company manages six cemeteries in New Jersey and New York, including Mercer County’s largest cemetery, Greenwood, where almost half of all Mercer County residents are interred upon death.
CMS developed a plan to make a cemetery of the 12 acres on the west side of the campus in five phases of construction. The layout of the cemetery will preserve existing trees, and utilize a tree-lined buffer zone between the graves and the edge of the property.
The chapel itself — redubbed Princeton Abbey — is being transformed into a place to hold cremated remains, and will also be open for special events and concerts. The chapel’s acoustics, optimized for church music, allow two people to have a speaking-voice conversation while standing at opposite ends of the sanctuary.
The Business of Burial. Disposing of human remains is not just a necessary function of society — it’s a business. And as always, business is good.
“It is a business forever, not a business that goes out of style,” Stoecklein said. “The life cycle of a cemetery is forever. This cemetery is in its infancy.” “Cemeteries really need to be forever,” Stoecklein said. “We will never be able to change that back. It will always be a cemetery. My job is to carry the baton until the next person takes over.”
Stoecklein has been in the family business in some form or another since the 1950s. He grew up in Pittsburgh, where his father was a baker who also sold funeral plots on the side. The elder Stoecklein and an uncle would drive around in a bread truck selling funeral plots, and Buzzy always had summer jobs cutting grass or digging graves. Stoecklein joined the army in the 1960s and while stationed at Fort Bragg, decided he would sell burial spots to make extra money so he could live off-base.
When Stoecklein left the army in 1970, that side job turned into a career, and eventually Stoecklein together with his younger brother ended up owning CMS West, which had funeral homes and a gravestone business in addition to owning cemeteries. In 1992 his brother left the business to pursue other ventures, and in 1995 Stoecklein founded CMS Mid-Atlantic, headquartered in Union, which focused on managing cemeteries in New York and New Jersey. His cousin, George, owns CMS East, which manages 29 cemeteries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Carolinas.
The business of managing cemeteries is like no other. In the strictly regulated cemetery business in New Jersey, the division of labor is very well defined. Funeral home owners cannot manage graveyards. Graveyards must be maintained by a nonprofit group, which exist only to keep the cemetery looking nice until the end of linear time.
Because eternally mowing a lawn is an expensive proposition, the nonprofit groups must have a source of funding they can draw upon to keep the property up for hundreds of years after all the people who ever knew anyone buried in the cemetery are dead themselves. Once a graveyard is full, there can be no new graves dug, and therefore no source of income to maintain the property.
That’s where companies like CMS come in. CMS markets and sells plots in a graveyard, and passes along a certain percentage of every sale —15 percent for a grave, 10 percent for a crypt or cremation — to a trust fund controlled by the nonprofit group. That group uses interest and dividends generated by the fund to pay for groundskeepers. Thanks to the magic of compounding interest, these funds, if well managed, should keep the grass green for centuries to come. The industry likes to use the phrase “in perpetuity” to describe its obligations.
As a result of this, the cemetery management business requires long-term planning like no other. The “life cycle” of a cemetery depends on the size of it and the rate of people being buried there. It can be hundreds of years. For example, Stoecklein estimates that Greenwood cemetery, founded around the time of the Civil War, will be burying people for the next 400 years. Princeton Abbey has enough space in its 12 acres to go for about 250 years until the last grave is dug and the last urn placed in a niche.
All of the regulations of the cemetery business exist for a reason. If the long-term management of a graveyard isn’t planned out in advance, old cemeteries can fall into neglect. “Over 65 to 70 percent of older cemeteries are in disrepair and verge of insolvency,” Stoecklein said. “Some cemeteries are old, and well meaning people run them but they just don’t have wherewithal to develop revenue stream put together trust funds for the future.”
Stoecklein, who runs a nonprofit group called Friends of Rural Cemeteries, once helped the Prospect Cemetery in Nantucket get a charter to form a nonprofit group to take care their deteriorating and neglected graveyard. The group held a fundraiser, and got to borrow a $500,000 fund from a foundation to help get on their feet. For another source of revenue, they opened up some land for new plots. “I picked up a shovel and said, ‘this is how it’s done,’” Stoecklein said.
Because cemeteries not controlled by churches are required to have trust funds, their finances are open to the public. Stoecklein said anyone can get annual financial reports that cemeteries are required to submit to the Board of Cemeteries in Trenton, and he recommended doing research before choosing a final resting place. It’s also a good idea to see if they are well managed and easily reachable. “The first thing you want to do is to find out if a cemetery has a phone,” He said.
In addition to basic groundskeeping, graveyards require extra maintenance. Because of the settling of the loose earth used in graves, they will sink during the first two years after burial, so crews have to level the earth periodically.
Because of the limited availability of space and the need for maintenance “in perpetuity,” the cost of a burial plot has skyrocketed. Over the last century, the cost of burial plots and funeral services has escalated about 6 percent a year, but the figure is higher in places where land is scarce. Stoecklein said that in the cemeteries close to New York City, a burial plot costs $15,000 or more.
At Princeton Abbey, costs are more in line with the state average of around $5,000, with a discount available if bought in advance. That does not include the cost of the funeral or monument. The prices are set by the Board of Cemeteries and Stoecklein said there is “no haggling.” To visitors, he is offering savings certificates that unlike their bearers, will never expire.
“I’m not gonna be buried in a grave. When I’m dead, just throw me in the trash.” — Frank Reynolds, Danny DeVito’s character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
With space always limited and the costs always rising, fewer people are choosing to be buried than ever before. However, since most people want to go out with more dignity than Frank Reynolds, cremation is becoming the popular alternative. In the 1960s, only about 3 percent of Americans chose cremation. But opinions began to change, starting on the West Coast. Today, about 38 percent of people who die in New Jersey are cremated, and that figure is expected to rise to about half in five years.
Accordingly, there is space for about 15,000 cremation urns in Princeton Abbey. While it’s possible to keep a loved one’s ashes on a mantle, or have them scattered, Stoecklein said that many families prefer to have a permanent memorial. That’s exactly what the chapel is being turned into. Almost every available space in the building is being used to store remains. Certain flagstones on the floor will be removed and replaced with bronze markers beneath which remains will be stored.
On the walls, wood panels will be removed, urns placed behind them, and replaced with specially designed plates with a fleur-de-lis motif that can also be seen throughout the chapel.
In other rooms of the building, such as the library, shelves will line the walls, some with illuminated cases. Even the altars will contain cleverly designed compartments for the storage of human remains, and there are a handful of slots available directly underneath the stained glass windows. Prices range from $1,300 for the most obscure and less accessible spots to $20,000 for the most exalted positions within the chapel. All of the names of the buried will be inscribed in a book that will be placed under glass on what is now the main altar of the chapel. Princeton Abbey also plans to launch a secure website where a memorial page can be created for loved ones.
The chapel is meant to be a pleasant place for the living as well as the dead. “We do look at this as being a cultural center,” Stoecklein said. In his years of running cemeteries, he has seen how much it means to people to be able to visit their loved ones. He said the chapel was a “hidden gem” and that he has already had a great deal of interest from people interested in buying spots. He said one family plans to relocate the remains of their mother in the Abbey, and will hold a memorial service in the chapel for more than 100 people.
Princeton Abbey will hold an open house on Saturday, June 25 and Sunday, June 26. Princeton Pro Musica will play a concert from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The next day, the Princeton Music Connection Intermezzo Quartet will play from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.princetonabbey.org.
Stoecklein said planning ahead is a good idea. Buying a grave site or niche in advance will net a 20 to 30 percent discount compared to buying one “at the time of need.” In about 70 percent of cases, he said, the woman will outlive the man in a married couple and will end up making the arrangements if they are not done in advance. Another good reason to plan ahead is that if you make your wishes known before you die, your relatives won’t have to decide what to do, and won’t have to fight about it.
Stoecklein has already made his own arrangements, even though he plans to live until the ripe old age of 115. He’s considering changing them though, and he and his wife now want to be buried on the grounds of Princeton Abbey and Cemetery. “I turn 69 next year,” Stoecklein said. “I have 17,104 days left on this Earth.”
Open House, Princeton Abbey & Cemetery, Saturday, June 25, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.,and Sunday, June 26, 1 to 4 p.m.
Princeton Abbey & Cemetery, 75 Mapleton Road, Princeton 08540. 609-452-1600. www.princetonabbey.org.