Kimberly Farris-Luke is President and owner of Farris Funeral Service in Abingdon, VA. Her family also owns and operates Forest Hills Memory Gardens. She shared some of the challenges and opportunities faced while operating the cemetery.
Can you give us an overview of your memorial gardens?
“It was developed as a private cemetery in the early 1960s, and my family purchased it in 1984. It covers 75 acres with about 35 developed at this point. It features beautiful rolling hills and great views of the mountains. We have both flat marker and upright marker sections. We’ve added two mausoleums, a cremation garden, a scattering garden and, for pets, a crematory and burial garden. We built a branch funeral home on the property with connected office building, and our crematory is there.
“We primarily see casketed burials. A lot of families who choose cremation elect to bury the cremated remains or use niches in our mausoleums. We’re at about a 25% cremation in our market, which is lower than most. But we’re trying to prepare for the time when that number grows. That’s why we’ve added specific gardens for cremation.”
What do you consider your greatest challenge?
“I think we would be more successful if we had a true sales force. But we’ve found it hard to get good people to do that work. We had some bad experiences back in the early days with people my parents inherited from the former owner. There was some mishandling of contracts that we had to make right. Consumers weren’t hurt, but we were. That’s probably why we’re skittish about having aggressive salespeople.
“We’ve had some attrition so, right now, we have two people. They’re doing fine, but it’s more like order taking or helping people who walk in. There’s really no sales involved. So we’re looking to become more proactive in the future.
“On the other hand, we’ve had good success with our groundskeeping staff. They even provide customer service when out on the grounds. This is important, because if someone stops them and asks a question or expresses a concern, they must to be able to engage them properly.”
Tell us about your efforts to create legislation to allow owners and pets to be buried together.
“We have had a separate pet cemetery for 14 years, and quite a few families have chosen to bury their pets in that section. Over the years, we would have families inquire about the availability of a garden that would allow for the burial of both humans and pets. We decided to explore developing our Garden of Loyalty human-pet garden, so we examined all the state laws. We were allowed to have a separate garden for pets that did not border any garden for human remains, and ours met that requirement, but nothing in the law allowed for humans and pets together. So we asked our local state representative to propose a bill to change the law. There was more than a year of discussion; then it was tabled; then it was finally approved by the legislature that people and pets could be buried in the same garden. Next, the cemetery board had to give its input, and that added another couple of years. We actually started the process eight years ago, and we just received approval this past summer to begin selling graves in the new area.
“As the law is currently defined, humans and pets can be buried in adjoining graves in Virginia, but the pet has to be in its own casket and grave. No pet body or cremains can be placed inside a casket with a human being. And just like with the pets-only area, this land has to be segregated.
“I think this is going to be a growing trend. Many people consider their pets to be a part of their family, and they want to be buried together. There may be some pushback from the public as well as from some funeral and cemetery people. Not everybody loves animals, and many people do not want to be buried next to one, which is the primary reason for the requirement those gardens be segregated from others. But our Garden of Loyalty has a lot of value for pet families. We believe in it, and you have to, if you’re going to do this sort of thing. You may have to jump through a lot of hoops to make it come about, and it may take time for this to be a financial success. But that truly was not the motivation behind our pursuit of this opportunity. We were trying to be responsive to the needs of the people in our community.”
We understand you’ve had some difficulty because of a nearby airport.
“Yes, our cemetery is very close to a small, regional airport. About 12 years ago, the airport commission wanted to lengthen the runway to attract corporate jet business. So the FAA conducted a long series of hearings. Our concern was that we had a beautiful, wooded hillside with a cremation garden that was directly in the flight path of the proposed runway extension. We were going to have to cut down a lot of mature trees and ruin the beauty of the property.
“There is a larger airport 30 minutes away that serves Delta and American, and a lot of corporate jets use that. We argued that the community really didn’t need another corporate airport and that the trees added tremendous value to the aesthetics of the cemetery. We fought a very protracted battle for ten years. But in the end, the FAA exercised imminent domain laws and took our trees. We were reimbursed for the cost of replanting species that will only mature to a certain height, but the settlement was just a fraction of the true impact this had on us. When you have trees that are 70 years old and replace them with saplings, it just changes the whole look of the cemetery.
“We ruffled a lot feathers among local regulatory boards and business people in the community who were strong advocates of the expansion. But we felt it was right to fight for the hundreds of families who have chosen and will continue to choose our cemetery. We invested a lot of time and money obtaining testimonies from families with grave sites in the affected area, and we had specialists explain the ecological impact that the tree removal would have.
“I know we’re not alone in this situation. Other cemeterians have faced imminent domain issues concerning right of way for roads. But what concerned us was that it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that a cemetery is sacred ground to so many people.”
How do things stand today?
“The sad thing is, the airport still hasn’t done the expansion because it has run out of money. They’re asking the federal government to subsidize the project, but the government is refusing. So we essentially went through all of this for nothing.
“The wooded hillside is gone, so we had to back up and create something new. We’ve done a lot of replanting, and we created a new cremation garden with a serpentine wall that includes niches. It’s a very pretty part of the cemetery; it just has really small trees right now.
“One of the very first areas developed in the cemetery has a beautiful statue of Christ, and there was a huge, old oak tree right beside it that had to come down. It looks so different to us and to the people who have a long history in the area. But other people have mentioned how well the statue of Christ stands out on the hillside all by itself.
“So I think we have to take the long view. What’s lost is lost. It’s still a beautiful cemetery, and I’m very thankful for that. Over time, it will develop a new character. Fifty years from now, there will be a new sanctuary of beautiful trees for people to enjoy.”