The Woodlawn Cemetery and Mausoleum has been serving the community for over 100 years. It now offers full mortuary services for the bereaved. (photo by Daily Press Staff)

PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Cemetery has made the move from final resting place to the only place that a bereft family has to go after the loss of a loved one in an attempt to improve its service and its bottom line.

The cemetery expanded its offerings to include a full mortuary as a part of an evolving business plan presented to the City Council in April of 2009 that aims to both minimize the strain on its clients and help the municipal cemetery pay for itself.

Three years ago, the only thing that Woodlawn could provide to its clients was a grave, niche or crypt space, said Benjamin Steers, acting cemetery administrator for Woodlawn.

A family would have to go elsewhere to buy a casket, get the body embalmed or cremated, or any of the necessary tasks that accompany a death.

Now, the cemetery contracts out a mortuary service to give clients more options.

Bringing a full mortuary to the cemetery made it easier on families who could then go to one location for all of their needs, Steers said.

“They can come to make arrangements, or if they don’t have any previous arrangements, they can give us a call.”

It was also a crucial business decision.

Woodlawn, as a business, runs consistently in the red. Its business model of three years ago required the deceased to be a resident of Santa Monica and only provided a grave plot, niche or mausoleum.

Although there are spaces available in the cemetery, they stopped selling, in part because of the changing needs of Santa Monica, whose demographics transitioned from a majority of long-term residents to a more transient population of young people less concerned with planning for their mortality.

Also, most of those using Woodlawn chose to get cremated, a cheaper option than the $4,500 ground burial and, consequently, one that deprived the cemetery much of its revenue.

“The cemetery was only able to cover its costs based on selling plot space,” Steers said. “Since it was no longer doing many plot spaces as a result of the cremations, the cemetery was no longer able to recoup a lot of the expenses it needs to operate.”

Since, the cemetery opened its doors to non-residents to boost sales, but it’s not been enough to turn the tide.

According to a staff report, the cemetery owes City Hall approximately $4.5 million, and expects to run up another $1.1 million to get it through the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The money has gone for operations, said Susan Cline, assistant director of Public Works.

“We’re struggling with how to run the cemetery, as many municipal cemeteries do, and keep it in the black,” Cline said.

The down economy hasn’t helped — people with less money at their fingertips don’t choose to spend their dollars on their eventual burials.

“They’re not planning for the future because they don’t have as much disposable income,” Cline said.

City Hall has brought in a private firm to analyze the cemetery to see if there’s anything else that can be done to bring in more revenue.

“We want to make sure we’re running it as efficiently as possible with limited resources,” Cline said. The report should be completed by February.

Steers is already intimately familiar with the cemetery’s finances — before taking over as its administrator, he was part of a management rotation program, where he spent four weeks in the manager’s office and another four weeks at Public Works doing a financial analysis of the cemetery.

When the previous administrator left, the second generation Santa Monica civil servant found himself with a funeral director license managing the cemetery. It’s been an enlightening experience, he said.

“For me personally, it’s a great way to see how the city operates and the amount of things it provides. It’s a cradle to grave operation,” Steers said. “The fire department can deliver babies, the city does early childhood education and at the final step, when someone passes away, they can still come back to the city and can take care of everything.”

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