Archdiocese's bid to lease 13 cemeteries has court date

Orphans' Court hearing, set for this month, was delayed to allow more publicity.
Orphans' Court hearing, set for this month, was delayed to allow more publicity. (BARBARA L. JOHNSTON / File Photograph)
Posted: January 01, 2014

The Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia's bid to lease its 13 cemeteries to StoneMor Partners L.P. for $89 million to be paid over 35 years has a date in Orphans' Court next week.

Officials with the archdiocese and StoneMor have said they expect to easily clear the hurdle Monday, but there has been one hitch.

The hearing in Orphans' Court, which must approve certain deals involving charitable assets, was originally scheduled for Dec. 11, but Judge John W. Herron pushed the hearing back to allow more time to publicize the deal, announced in September.

The hearing is a chance for interested parties to object to the 60-year lease of the 13 archdiocesan cemeteries.

"We are not aware of any formal filings of any objections, although we do know that a few letters have been sent to the court expressing concern about the transaction," said Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Among the businesses most likely to be harmed by the deal are gravestone dealers - because they will be plunged into direct competition with StoneMor, the nation's second-largest operator of cemeteries, which also sells grave markers and other cemetery features.

Lawrence Miller, StoneMor's chief executive, said during a meeting with investors last month that between 60,000 and 80,000 Catholics in the Philadelphia region had already purchased a grave site in one of the cemeteries, but nothing else needed for burial.

"They don't own their vault, they don't own their marker, they don't own their casket, and they don't own the opening and closing. So there is going to be the enormous opportunity for the company to market," Miller said.

StoneMor, based in Levittown, also anticipates expanding the market. "We will be able to open the properties up to not only the owners or people of the Catholic faith, but also open the cemeteries up to anyone of the Christian faith. So it's going to give us an enormous opportunity in Philadelphia," Miller said.

The archdiocese said in a frequently asked questions document on the cemeteries' website that StoneMor would be able to bury non-Catholic Christians after two years, if the archdiocese approves.

To increase public awareness of the hearing since Dec. 11, the archdiocese has sent notices to all parishes and asked pastors to mention the hearing on multiple weekends, and sent a letter to all lot owners who are making installment payments, among other measures.

The hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. in City Hall Courtroom 416.


hbrubaker@phillynews.com

215-854-4651 @InqBrubaker

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